Faster (Further Downwards)

This is the second part of an essay on the song ‘Faster’. The first part can be read here.

‘Faster’ may well have sent James Dean Bradfield in the direction of the Sex Pistols because of those traces of ‘Anarchy in the UK’. The words written by Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire contain an extraordinary number of allusions, referring listeners not only to musical predecessors but also to philosophy and literature. These connections deepen the interest and ambiguity of the song on repeat listening, and never diminish the captivating blast of the music as first experienced, with its insistent, rhythmic punctuation.

The band have always acknowledged their literary and musical debts in interviews and artwork but ‘Faster’ goes beyond the type of conscious homage familiar right from the band’s first album, fogging certain conscious reference points and finding others seemingly by chance.

The poem ‘I Am’ by John Clare would seem to be an example of the latter. Published in 1848, but believed to have been written a few years earlier, the poem was composed while Clare was a patient at the Northampton County Asylum. There are curious surface similarities in the poem’s depiction of isolation, turmoil and disrupted sleep — and that key phrase that gives the poem its title. Clare writes of his introspection, ‘I am the self-consumer of my woes’, a line that almost mirrors Edwards’s ‘Self-disgust is self-obsession’. In another poem of the same name, written in sonnet form, Clare describes a natural desire to be like a creator, free from the constraints of terrestrial limitation:

‘I was a being created in the race

Of men disdaining bounds of place and time:

A spirit that could travel o’er the space

Of earth and heaven — like a thought sublime’ [1]

This imaginative energy, the desire to conquer known bounds, disembodied, characterises ‘Faster’ too. Clare’s sonnet, however, ends with an ultimate admission of limitation: ‘But now I only know I am — that’s all.’ This understanding is not framed as necessarily disappointing. Clare yearns for the consolations of religion. On The Holy Bible, no hope is placed in the redemptive power of a God. There are descriptions of purgatory, and a hell that ‘may as well be heaven’. But the Christian God is absent.

John Clare by William Hilton, oil on canvas, 1820

There is, understandably, a tendency among listeners to see Richey Edwards’s personal experiences reflected in the words of ‘Faster’. During the touring and promotion of The Holy Bible, Edwards was first admitted to Cardiff’s Whitchurch Hospital, an NHS psychiatric unit, before being relocated to The Priory for treatment for alcoholism, anorexia and depression. The song is certainly one of the clearest examples of Edwards’s creative ingenuity and it would seem obtuse to overlook the way in which the lyrics resonate with the feelings that he remarked upon openly in interviews. [2] But other figures and voices can be heard besides.

By the time the song admits of a more emotional register during the bridge – finally leaving behind the cold, clinical strictures of the opening verse – it is as if another voice breaks in; more vulnerable, looking on from the perspective not of an aggressive outsider but a withdrawn, marginal figure who cannot find their place in a hostile world: ‘I am idiot drug hive, the virgin, the tattered and the torn’. Can this voice be trusted, given that the first lines of the album, sung from a similar vantage point on the social horizon, have warned: ‘All virgins are liars’.

There is an ambiguity too in that standout line: ‘Self-disgust is self-obsession, honey’. Is the ego here admitting a psychic trap to an interlocutor? Or has another voice spoken in response? [3] That added ‘honey’ lends an unexpected note of endearment, of familiarity, the sense of an everyday conversation between people, as against the detached character Bradfield establishes at the beginning. And it hints of a return of whoever told us on ‘Yes’ that ‘all virgins are liars’. Are these all aspects of the same, confused personality?

Or just another country?

The sense splinters into greater abstraction as ‘Faster’ progresses beyond those first lines, but there is a renewed hubris. The bold chorus has become representative of the ambition of The Holy Bible:

‘I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer.

I spat out Plath and Pinter.’

The voice is, then, of this world – specifically the world of arts and letters – even if claiming superiority to it. Spitting is of course a signature punk gesture, a ritual of every Pistols gig. But it is also in keeping with the preoccupation with eating and its refusal throughout The Holy Bible; specifically here, it suggests an unwillingness to digest the ideas of the world as given – a knowledge that in the Christian story was first learned by a forbidden act of eating – even as the album scrambles to remember everything it can about the crimes and abuses of the twentieth century. It is often noted how the title of the song itself bears a double meaning: a person who abstains from food, and a speeding up of activity. It is an approach to thinking further about The Holy Bible that has been taken up with much insight by Larissa Wodtke:

‘Not only is the refusal of food an exercise in discipline and control, but it can also be read as a metaphorical refusal, and ultimately and inability, to assimilate difficult knowledge, to make it so unpalatable as to draw attention to itself.’ [4]

As with several other songs on the album, ‘Faster’ namechecks historical figures. It has inspired countless listeners to make a reading list. And those who have done the reading, and the reading around Norman Mailer in particular, will find that that first chorus line seems to be a manic response to another text.

Gore Vidal by Juan F Bastos

In his 1971 article ‘In Another Country’, a review of Eva Figes’s book Patriarchal Attitudes, Gore Vidal outlined what he saw as an insidious, misogynistic tendency among certain of his male contemporaries in the literary world:

‘There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression. The Miller-Mailer-Manson man (or M3 for short) has been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons; at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated, killed.’ [5]

Replacing Manson with Mensa, Edwards constructs an alternative composite for attack: the Mensa-Miller-Mailer man. Vidal’s judgement of Mailer sparked a feud in writing that culminated in a joint television appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. [6] This head-to-head was a flashpoint of a culture in which the arts directed the public conversation; when culture could grip or outrage a general public – cf. Sex Pistols (So It Goes, 1976); Manic Street Preachers (Top of the Pops, 1994). Wrenched from the context of Vidal’s original article and tempered with a reference to the world’s oldest high IQ society, the chorus becomes more a general statement of intellectual bravado. Yet, that which is missing still haunts the song with a sense of the murderous lurking beneath the surface and almost acts as a confirmation in absentia of the opening lines’ cold-blooded tone.

It is there, too, in the image chosen to accompany the lyric in the inner sleeve of The Holy Bible: a portrait of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, the ‘Butcher of Rostov’ as it appeared in a series of True Crime trading cards released by Eclipse in the US in 1992, to much notoriety. (The image might have been equally apt as an illustration for ‘Archives of Pain’, and Chikatilo included among the condemned in that song’s notorious chorus).

True Crime trading card #202 (Eclipse, 1992). Art by Paul Lee

And of course there is that final summation, contributed by Wire: ‘So damn easy to cave in. Man kills everything.’ [7] During a concert at the London Astoria in December 1994, at the end of the UK tour in support of The Holy Bible, Bradfield introduced the song with a brief dedication to filmmaker Oliver Stone. That year, Stone’s film Natural Born Killers, which follows the brutal killing spree of two lovers whose crimes are glorified by the mass media and filled with comic and overly stylised, violent set pieces, was causing huge controversy.

The rest of the chorus to ‘Faster’ has been given less attention in writing about the song but suggests further connections and ambiguities along these lines:

‘I am all the things that you regret’ – words that might inspire dread and sympathy and awe all at once. That someone might confront you with all the regrets you have; that the speaker is the personification of such regrets and thus must endure a dismaying existence; or is it that the avowed strength of the speaker means that they can even bear to be all the things that you regret?

‘A truth that washes that learned how to spell’ – sees the speaker reasserting their essential vitality – and their literary superiority – and again there is both a saintly resonance in the specific verb ‘washes’ (cf. ‘Die in the Summertime’: ‘If you really care, wash the feet of a beggar’) as well as a hint of the vengeful, as associated, for instance, with the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, another controversial film and a band favourite: “One day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the street”.

Orwellian resistance, emotional and physical vulnerability, intellectual ambition, and rampant machismo – all confused and looming into the foreground by turns.

***

The second verse of ‘Faster’ shifts, abruptly, into the second person and further complicates any desired coherence, seeming as it does to be written about, or from the perspective of, an adolescent; either a woman, or homosexual man (‘He loves me truly’ suggesting both); mixing expressions of self-loathing (‘The first time you see yourself naked you cry. Soft skin now acne, foul breath, so broken.’) and loneliness, with (probably failing) romantic involvement. As with ‘Yes’ and ‘4st 7lbs’, the lines between sexes blur here in the figuration of a narrator. And the linguistic sense is blurred, too: the word ‘cry’ suggesting at once ‘emphatic speech’ and ‘inarticulate weeping’. Does the subject cry out, as in pain or despair, or shed tears? The song shatters easy distinctions while urgently trying to cling to certainties. [8]

And then there is the closest thing to a philosophy that the song can manage: ‘I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing.’ It is a downbeat twist on the Cartesian maxim, ‘Cogito ergo sum’, which, as with Clare’s despairing poems, tries to underwrite that barest of assertions: ‘I am.’ The voice of man as much as any Old Testament God. A variation on the Marxian ‘I am nothing and should be everything’ heard already on the Generation Terrorists’ track ‘Methadone Pretty’. Closer to nihilism than the Pistols’ anarchy, it is given a strangely affectionate quality: ‘my nothing’. Yet, as Simon Price points out, it follows the almost paradoxical logic of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ on which Rotten spits: ‘Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it’ (implication: by anarchic means, whatever it is.) [9]

This uneasy relationship to existence is described succinctly by DW Winnicott, in his landmark psychoanalytic study Playing and Reality, when considering the case of a patient who had told him: “All I have got is what I have not got.” A sentiment remarkably close to Edwards’s, to which Winnicott responds:

‘There is a desperate attempt here to turn the negative into a last-ditch defence against the end of everything. The negative is the only positive.’ [10]

Elsewhere in his analysis, Winnicott states: ‘“I am” must precede “I do”, otherwise “I do” has no meaning for the individual… There is still, of course, vulnerability in the sense that gross environmental failure can result in a loss of the individual’s new capacity for maintaining integration in independence.’

The harsh reality that the song cannot mask ultimately invites the individual to resign to anonymity – an impulse at odds with the bravado of the opening lines and chorus: ‘If you stand up like a nail then you will be knocked down.’ As has been noted elsewhere in writing about The Holy Bible, this sounds like a variation on the Japanese proverb, ‘The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down’. [11] The perspective seems to have switched yet again, to that of the crucified (the reference to a ‘nail’ carrying a suitably Christian tone too) rather than a spectator.

For all of the song’s aggrandisement there is at its core a recognition of a final futility. As much as there is an outsized faith in one’s abilities, there is a persistent trouble, a root discontentment: ‘Sleep can’t hide the thoughts splitting through my mind.’ Again, this could easily be a simple report of Edwards’s mental state, or a narrative voice adopted for the song. And again, these sound somewhat like the agonised words of a criminal desperate to stop the violent (‘splitting’) thoughts that make daily life impossible. Still, the confused signals, the crossed wires, are held together in the rigorous musical delivery.

‘Faster’ is one of several songs on The Holy Bible which are sung from a first-person perspective; although, as we have seen, it is less straightforwardly so than the others. These songs together express a desire for perfection, an ideal of purity, and the narrator’s subjective view of how they live up to their ideal. This is most obviously the case in ‘4st 7lb’, in which the frailty of the body deepens as the narrator’s mental strength is said to be sharpening. There is an extreme contrast between how the individual appears to those around them and how they judge their own capacities. In ‘Die in the Summertime’ the voice describes repeated attempts to perfect external appearances and the disappointment that comes with the contingencies of reality (‘Colour my hair but the dye grows out/I can’t seem to stay a fixed ideal’). There is a nail that moves through that song too, dragged across the skin. And in ‘Yes’, the prostitute from whose point of view the song is sung retains pride: ‘puking, sinking, shaking, I still stand for old ladies’. But it ultimately means little in the face of history, and in the face of a modern world that is rife with violence and exploitation. Edwards’s writing is remarkable for the way in which mental experience is embodied, creating a tension between physical suffering and the turbulence of critical thinking.

The speed and delirium of the present era, contorting the individual’s sense of self, and worth, is channelled into a guitar solo of frantic, overdriven energy. No comfort comes, the drums force home with syllabic clarity the last shouted refrain of ‘Faster’: ‘So damn easy to cave in/Man kills everything.’ There is a final split: between perpetrating violence and submitting to power; whether to read ‘cave in’ as a destructive act so easily performed, or a concession so easily given.

The architecture will inevitably collapse. Recall The Sex Pistols, again, and the final cry of ‘Anarchy in the UK’: ‘Destroy!’

Historical vectors converge, references multiply, voices overlap, for only a few minutes – all these elements are compressed to the point of ecstatic instability. ‘Faster’ encapsulates and complicates The Holy Bible, its allusions and voices ricocheting throughout other songs and images on the album, and out into the wider culture. It is a compelling picture of the individual, desperate for dignity and strength yet haunted, hopeless and confused by their own worst impulses and adrift in a world that all around conspires towards isolation and dissolution.

‘There is no trace of ‘I’ in the act of preserving. There is in that of destroying. The ‘I’ leaves its mark on the world as it destroys.’ – Simone Weil

Notes:

[1] See Clare, John ‘Lines: “I Am”’ and ‘Sonnet: “I Am”’ in Jonathan Bate (ed), John Clare Selected Poems (Faber & Faber, 2004), pp. 282-283. There is also a remarkable similarity between Clare’s ‘Even the dearest that I love best/Are strange – nay, rather, stranger than the rest’ and Edwards’s still more devastating line from ‘Yes’: ‘Everyone I’ve loved or hated always seems to leave’.  

[2] Consider, for example, the following comment in his last British interview, with Peter Paphides: ‘There’s a certain kind of beauty in taking complete control of every aspect of your life. Purifying or hurting your body to achieve a balance in your mind is tremendously disciplined.’ In Price, Everything p.167

[3] Other band histories claim that this line was inspired by a conversation between Edwards and Hall or Nothing press officer, Gillian Porter. See, Price, Everything p.125

[4] Wodtke, Larissa ‘Architecture of Memory: The Holy Bible and the Archive’ in Jones, Lukes and Wodtke Triptych (Repeater Books, 2017), p.283

[5] Vidal, Gore ‘In Another Country’, The New York Review of Books 22 July, 1971. Accessed online at https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/07/22/in-another-country/ (12 February 2018)

[6] The episode is available to watch online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nb1w_qoioOk (Nicky Wire would later re-purpose one of Vidal’s most memorable quotes, ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail’, for ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’, the opening track on Rewind the Film (2013).

[7] That ‘Faster’ and ‘Archives of Pain’ share an underlying thematic preoccupation with death, guilt, the individual and society also shows in the similar language used in each: ‘nail’/‘nail’, ‘drained’/‘draining’, ‘tear’/‘torn’, ‘man makes death’/‘man kills everything’, ‘redemption’/‘repented’, ‘regret’/‘regret’.

[8] This distinction is made in a discussion of the poetry of William Blake, in Goldsmith, Steven Blake’s Agitation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), p.186

[9] Price, Everything p.125

[10] Winnicott, D W Playing and Reality (Routledge Classics, 2005), p.32

[11] Price, Everything p.125

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