Handsome Dan1 May 2016
Content warning: references to suicide and depression.
“I’m successful in the sense I’m not dead”.
This is an oddly positive sentiment from Dan Barrett, or as I know him, Giles Corey. In 2011, Dan released an avant-garde lo-fi folk album under the same name, recorded in the midst of a deep, suicidal depression. Now, four years later, I’m subtly trying to see if this really is the same man who once wrote “No One Is Ever Going To Want Me”. By now, Giles Corey has been solidified as a true cult classic; an absolute product of the underground.
Ever since I became a weird, outré teenager, I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of the ‘cult classic’. Mostly as an offshoot of every other album or movie claiming this title. It’s a term that gets attributed without many questioning why. The phrase ultimately raises more questions than it answers. How did this cult classic become so? Who decides this? Is there some sort of arbitrary prerequsite (or non-allowed subjects depending how snobby your band is) of fans the classic has to meet for the position? What I really want to know is: what is The Cult?
Now – shock horror – this is a stupidly open-ended question to answer. For just as the LeVayan Satanists may never know about the Luciferean sect of the Order of the Nine Angels, fans of Daniel Johnston’s Hi, How Are You? may never know Wormlust’s Sex Augu, Tólf Stjörnur, who themselves probably won’t have ever heard Current 93’s Thunder Perfect Mind, and so on ad infinitum until you reach that cavernous realm of Bandcamp garage artists and power electronics bands making harsh noise collages.
It’s Dante’s fucking Inferno, just replacing eternal guilt and suffering with stick-and-poke tattoos and ironically placing the importance of pizza higher than it deserves. The Cult is fluid and multi-modal. The Cult extends from the ethereal biomechanical cocks of Giger’s art to the Google Translated buddy-cop script of Samurai Cop.
When I think of an embodiedment of The Cult, the figure in my third eye is always that goofy-toothed part-time prankster, full-time writer, Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon represents a recurrence in the underground; the cult of personality. Pynchon is an enigma. No photos beyond a (likely stoned) yearbook relic, avoiding all publicity, moving states just so the literati paps don’t get his mugshot – Pynchon’s reclusivity just furthers the mystery. While he aims to remove his presence from his work, it achieves the opposite.
This happens frequently in The Cult. It’s hard to think of the Les Légions Noires (LLN) – who, I should point out, were an actual cult – without thinking of the members; Mütiilation, Worlok Drakkstein or my personal favourite, the man who just decided to cut all pretense and christened himself “A Dark Soul”. When you think of the LLN (not that I imagine you personally would do all that often), it’s not their music but their image: their corpse paint and pentagrams. Would Charles Manson’s folk albums have garnered any recognition without all that Helter Skelter? Would Joy Division be seen differently if Ian Curtis hadn’t killed himself? Suicide is unfortunately a recurring theme; just see David Foster Wallace. It isn’t often you see mention of his work that isn’t prefaced with the mention of his untimely death. It’s hard to view their art without the taint of persona.
This is where Dan comes in. Dan – not necessarily by his own creation – has fallen victim to his persona, at least when it came to me. In my naiveté, I assumed that Dan was the embodiment of Giles; dark, depressive and unapproachable. All I had was the music. To me, Dan was an MP3 file. One compressed, virus ridden MP3 file that, if you play it, doesn’t too shockingly portray Dan in this way.
The opening track builds to this explosion of noise and static and horns, while a man screams “I’m at the bottom of a well” completely out of time, which devolves into straight wailing and bashing at the keys of some old piano. Samples of suffocation, seances, voices of the dead. One song spends three minutes repeating the words “I’m going to kill myself”. This isn’t even mentioning ‘No One is Ever Going to Want Me’.
It’s not just the lyrics, even the production is numbing. Lo-fi is not a joke. The album opens with a piano riff that sounds like it’s been recorded through a phone. The drums are Fruity Loop 4 presets. The entire album is covered in this ever-present fuzz. It’s like being covered in a poorly knitted sweater – whenever you move the sleeve irritates your skin and it hurts, but only slightly. You keep on wearing it despite what it’s doing to you. And every time you wear that sweater you know, you just know you’re going to get that rash in that same spot again. But there’s something comforting and almost homely in wearing it that you can’t stay away from. Maybe it goes with your shorts. Maybe it’s just all you feel like wearing. It hurts but so do you. And no matter what, it’s warm.
Would Charles Manson’s folk albums have garnered any recognition without all that Helter Skelter? Would Joy Division be seen differently if Ian Curtis hadn’t killed himself?
As such, emailing Dan is, in itself, one of the most terrifying things I’ve put myself through. Despite the fact that email is likely the most inoffensive communication cop-out available, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that he could end up despising me without even meeting me. Sending a response back with nothing in the subject title and the body text of FUCK YOU. I couldn’t remove that abyssal figure in my mind – too preoccupied with his sadness and art to respond to interview requests by unemployed Australian teenagers for first year Arts assignments. I wondered if he was even still alive.
Within two to three business days I receive a prompt and businesslike response with a link that takes me to an online scheduling app known as ‘Calenderfly’. His email avatar is not only well lit but it clearly shows him smiling. There are three interview options; each an amalgam of corporate jargon and sickening positivity (my favourite being the ‘Getting-To-Know-You Call’, which I accidentally schedule for 6:30am on a Thursday because I’m intimidated by choice).
Now, face-to-slightly chubby face, I’m wondering why I was ever concerned. Almost immediately, I’m greeted by signs of separation from Giles Corey. His Skype tagline reads “World’s Friendliest Web Nerd!”; the quality of his webcam is jarringly pristine – you can hardly describe it as “lo-fi”. Dan apologises as his office is “messy”, but the room I see is immaculate, a stark contrast to the unkempt collegiate cavern I’m broadcasting from. His last word to me will be “peace”.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one to fall victim to the Giles image. The so called ‘Voors Head Device’ – the fictional headpiece that makes up the album’s cover, said to suffocate the wearer to a point of near-death hallucination – becomes a worrying fan favourite. Fans email asking if it’s real. Asking how to make one, as though Dan might hold some ‘Make a Voors Head in Ten Easy Steps’ YouTube tutorial. Others don’t even bother asking and instead proudly tell Dan that they’ve made their own. It’s not even as though this hood was glamorised – it’s said (again, fictional piece of cloth) to cause hours of wailing and general torment, all to be forgotten, experienced again through a tape recorder. Yet they all email Dan. Though they don’t really. They all email Giles. Dan is faced with the realisation that what was a creation of self-expression has external consequences. Dan jokes that he should “affix warning labels to Giles”, explaining that it’s not quite as real as it may seem. But it’s not a joke. It’s The Cult. These fans went beyond just enjoying the album – they became a part of it. They constructed a perception of Dan and refused to let go.
He jokes about whether I’ve noted his beauty, suggesting I call the piece ‘Handsome Dan’. While he may have been joking, Dan looks great. Not in a repressed homoerotic fawning sort of way but in the sense that as I chatted to him, he emanated something. A confidence or comfort; something I couldn’t quite pin down.
One leaving comment Dan makes really strikes a chord. “If you have one weird kid on the internet at every school buying our records, we can sustain ourselves.” This resonates with me in a way that’s relatively unsettling. I am that weird kid. I am the Giles Corey rep of the Port Adelaide/Enfield area. I am part of something much larger than myself. I am The Cult.
I still remember the day I first heard Giles Corey. There was no natural light in the room. I was covered in a doona, having been so malaise I wasn’t bothering to move to bed to sleep. I hadn’t left the room in about three days. “There’s a devil on my back/Buried above the ground.” The album nearly broke me. As cliché as this definitely sounds in 2016, Giles Corey spoke to me. It was as though Dan was in that room with me, head covered in the Voors, telling me that I wasn’t going to be okay but I wasn’t the only one that felt that way.
One line sticks with me that my 16-year-old self assumed I would epigraph on my first novel. “I wanna feel, like I feel, when I’m asleep”. Not wanting to die per se. Just wanting to feel better.
Cult classics don’t make us feel like we’re unique, they comfort us with the knowledge that we aren’t.
Listening to it now, having talked to Dan, I can’t help but feel things have changed in spite of the fact that nothing has. Yet it’s so odd how context changes things. That line still hits me but it’s so easy to hear “I’m going to kill myself” and wonder if 16-year-old me was being a bit dramatic. While I don’t feel the same sadness anymore, the album still hits a certain something, be it sadness or nostalgia. Yet I also see hundreds of UniMelb students (if I’m being generous) going off to YouTube and screaming “Fuck you Jack Francis Musgrave, I listened to this for 15 minutes and didn’t even kill myself once.” Dan is still there next to me but the bag has been lifted. He’s not wailing. He’s smiling and chatting to me about ways to improve my web presence.
This man is not the man who wrote Giles Corey to me. The issue is he did. But who the fuck am I to blame him anyway? He went from a man on the verge of suicide to having his own company, loving wife and son, and I feel what, disappointed? He hasn’t even changed all that much ideologically; he still gets sad, still gets depressed, he’s still a raging nihilist to the point of human abandon. Yet all this is delivered to an uneasy backdrop of professionalism and self-confidence. Maybe I don’t truly believe anyone is a nihilist until they’ve written a song called “Fuck the Universe” and personally replied to their fans’ Facebook comments with “Fuck Off And Die”. What is it that I’m worried about? That Dan is – god forbid – a poseur? It’s not even like I’m the same as I was when I heard it – my life has improved just as much as Dan has. So why am I feeling this apprehension?
My interview with Dan places me in a state of existential contemplation, leaving me mulling over a comment a friend once made of why we are drawn to cult classics:
“We want to feel different, unique. Liking things other people ‘don’t get’ validates our belief that we’re an individual.” Whereas once I felt challenged by it, now I feel as though he’s got it the wrong way around. Cult classics don’t make us feel like we’re unique, they comfort us with the knowledge that we aren’t. The Cult is all the weird kids of the country, getting together to ward off the loneliness. Because, in those moments, hearing my favourite album being played a metre in front of me while being pushed around by neo-nazi bogans, that crowd of thirty people feels like the world.
Writing this, I’ve always been aware of getting to this point. Of reaching a conclusion that amounts to “I’unno”. And it’s still true. Cult classics still confuse me. I understand why we like them, but not how they become them. They sort of just are. What I do know is what draws people to them and next to me, Handsome Dan is sitting, reminding me why.
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