The Wanderer: Dirty Beaches and Rock Iconography

8 Feb

In underground music, in spite of insisting that things like back-stories and personae are stupid and that music should be all about the music, man, most of us rock fans are suckers for iconography. It’s what separates the Ramones from the Wipers, the Strokes from A.R.E. Weapons, the notable faces from any culture or subculture from the undervalued artists and also-rans. Kurt Cobain used it to his advantage and became the biggest rock star in the world by pretending it was the very thing he didn’t want. Stephen Malkmus’ persona came from slight shrugs and Delphic lyrics, eventually becoming a slacker poster boy in the process. Even if you feign not giving a shit hard enough, you can become an icon from it. Your personality is turned into your persona, it goes the long way around.

Others have made their rock star careers much simpler by just plucking the best fruit from the trees of culture, combining many elements– including their own experiences– and fusing them together in order to cultivate an image that they see fit enough for their type of performances. 50’s iconography started to pop up in little corners of music in 2011, white t-shirts and sock hop dresses rippling in the wind down a long stretch of highway. It was an era hardly tapped by the preservationists of culture up to this point– except during the seventies, with Happy Days appropriating the fifties and early American punk nicking the aesthetic of surf culture and then feeding it back to them in short, distorted, provocative blasts– as the four decades that come after it have been endlessly mined for style and inspiration. I’m not exactly complaining that people had to live through post-punk two separate times; I’m just saying black fades in the laundry when you wash it too often.

The 2011 appropriation of 50s culture seemed fresh because it’s been a while since the last time anybody’s bothered to swipe cues from it. And out of the people who pinched a few tricks from the era, no artist did it with as much panache and creativity as Alex Zhang Hungtai, who records under the name Dirty Beaches.

Of course there were others. Lana Del Rey, the year’s most-talked-about pop star among critic types, adopted a strong persona as a brassy pin-up with a somewhat vacant Ophelia feeling emanating from her pores. Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox– no stranger to adopting iconography in performances; in 2008, he played the Pitchfork Music Festival in a dress– has combed his hair in a wild pompadour and took cover shots for his latest solo album with the enormously well-known rock photographer Mick Rock. On the cover, Cox is shown clutching a vintage microphone, slyly peering off to the side.

But there’s a need to take cues from past culture without having to tarnish the present for doing so. Del Rey might carry herself as a pin-up, but her songs (and lyrical phrasing) contain hyper-modern signifiers of post-millennial life breaking to the surface. Sure, there are a couple songs that have recognizable 50s songwriting cues, but Parallax, Cox’s 2011 album as Atlas Sound, is filled with ambient flourishes and the type of sounds that are very present in modern days. Dirty Beaches songs sound like they could have been from the very era he’s referencing.

The tightly-wound “Sweet 17” features Zhang Hungtai whooping like a young Alan Vega, “A Hundred Highways” sounds like Roy Orbison on a transistor radio with the volume turned all the way up. Vega’s influence on Zhang is notable because Vega himself was a late-70’s synth punk who used his band’s sound to explore first-wave rock ‘n roll. The fifties.

Zhang Hungtai has also repeatedly cited movie directors, even more than musicians at times. Though it’s been mentioned endlessly, you can tell he finds a world of inspiration in David Lynch, a director who for a time in his career worked through the allure of the 50s. Zhang Hungtai’s music is clearly indicative of his love for Lynch, as the song’s two ballads in the album’s third quarter have a sense of unsettling creepiness and slow moving energy– they also sound like what would be playing in a particularly frightening scene in a Lynch movie.

And just to get more in character, Zhang Hungtai also dresses the part adeptly, always sporting black jeans and having enough white T-shirts to clothe a small African village. He spends a lot of time (even onstage!) slicking his hair back and striking quintessentially 50s rock poses. Where Dirty Beaches wins is the fact that he not only adopts this greaser/wayfarer image for his songs, he adopts it for his entire personality.

This is not to say that Zhang Hungtai is entirely play-acting. I’d assume some of it is, but I think it’s comes primarily from the fact that, in addition to the creation myth of Dirty Beaches (boy finds photo of his dad rocking a pompadour, makes a record in tribute to that photo he found), is a man who has lived in a great number of different locales; hopping around trails from one part of the world to the next. His adaptation of the drifter character he plays happens to be emotionally resonant, due to his deep understanding of a drifter’s life based on his own experiences. You can hear it in his voice, whether it’s booming and haunting or high-strung and nervous. You can tell that the drifter character he cultivated is not entirely far removed from the way he actually lived his life. He makes it feel not cut-and-paste like his detractors would say, but honest. And honesty is a virtue that doesn’t change with the tides of culture.

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