As Alex explained it to me, at our kitchen table, over bottles of Harry Smith’s Lager: “What you have here, what you have is three black kids from Detroit who make it over to Chicago every so often, to the Music Box, which is, you dig…”
“Dig? Alex, have you been drinking?”
“Shut up, I am allowed to say, dig. Sober or otherwise. Dig, as in, unearth, as in, delve, as in, perform the archeology of, which is, you will observe, what I am doing for you now. Three black kids from Detroit. In their city, nothing, ruin. They drive three hundred miles to hear house music at Ron Hardy’s place, the Music Box. Back in Detroit, equipped with minimal gear, they turn house music into something else. Something…” Alex scratched his chin, on which short dark hair had begun to grow: he was embarking on a new look. “Reflective. Something that would exist at a remove from the efficiency of the dance-music marketplace, the invisible hand of the dancefloor…”
“You don’t mean, the invisible foot?”
“The invisible hand that comes down from the dark ceiling of the club. Have you noticed, there’s not a dance club in existence that doesn’t have a black ceiling? That’s so you won’t notice when this supernatural force arrives… The hand that shakes you like a doll, y’know? That hand.”
“House music worships the hand. It is, in its essence, a handjob: a maneuver to bring the client to climax as fast as it can. The goal of house music is to get in and get out and keep your holes clean.”
“Ssh. These three kids from Detroit, they said, we will not whore for the hand! We will make music that makes you stop. You may have to think. I consider techno to be an act of resistance,” Alex said. “It is willful nonparticipation in the beats—handjob, handjob!—of the world.”
“I didn’t know you felt so deeply about it,” I said.
“Techno,” said Alex, half-rising from the kitchen chair, “is the sound of black people waking up! It is the sound of young black men coming to consciousness. This is of course an outrage to the white establishment, which wants the black man to be…” Hand covered nascent beard. “Manipulable. Slave to the Hand.” Which had grown a capital H. “So, what happens? Even you know the answer to this one.”
“The white establishment co-opts it,” I said.
“Genau,” said Alex, who had been reading Heidegger in German. “An English journalist demands that the style be given a name It is called techno, as though to prepare it for appropriation by the sphere of techne, which is to say, control. Mastery. Labeled, it is sold forth from its homeland. And ends up in, of all places, Belgium, the nation that brought you the Belgian Congo and Tintin, the racist boy reporter.”
“Tintin was only a racist in the first three albums,” I said. “After that, Hergé tried to make his stories culturally accurate.”
“Don’t quibble,” said Alex. “In Belgium this so-called raw material is adulterated with snare-drum riffs and floaty atmospheric breakdowns. Techno, a creation of cerebral black youth, becomes merely another occasion to shake your moneymaker.”
“Hold on,” I interrupted. “Are you telling me that James Brown works for the Hand?”
“To answer that question,” Alex said, “we would have to distinguish between James Brown an sich and what you might call, following Merleau-Ponty, the James Brown experience. We don’t have time. If you’ll let me come to my peroration?”
“The name of this misbegotten new style,” Alex perorated, “is trance music. Which says just about everything you need to know about it. It asks nothing of you, except total surrender. At least with house music you had to know how to dance.” Alex went into the pantry and rummaged for the breadbox in which we kept our old cassette tapes. “I can’t even think of a way to tell you how angry this makes me,” he said. “Imagine if a New York art dealer had bought Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, and hired some art-school goon to repaint them as seascapes. Which is probably what would have happened, if Jackson Pollock had been black.”
A clunk, and Alex emerged with a tape which he put in the ancient boom box that lurked over our refrigerator. “I mean, listen to this.” He pushed play and through the muffling hiss of decaying tape came clicks and synthesized tones. “Alleys of Your Mind,” Alex said. “Juan Atkins and a Vietnam veteran who called himself 3070, recording as Cybotron.” Distorted voices spoke into the hiss. “They wanted to make a sound so cool, it wouldn’t even be human,” Alex said. “It would just be computers talking to one another.”
“How prophetic,” I said.
“Auto-mantic,” said Alex. “Juan and 3070 got it right, ten years before the Web, fifteen years before Wired magazine. They foresaw. Who credits them with knowing? No one. Who gets credit? Alvin Fucking Toffler, a white sociologist who predicted that we’d all be wearing paper clothes. Marshall McLuhan. Bucky Fuller. It makes me so fucking sick, sometimes.”