Your Idle Hole
I was in 10th grade, fourteen years old, when I learned the rewards of staying up all night. I had an English paper due on Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming that, typically, I’d left to the last minute; my dad diverted my rising panic into enthusiasm by helping me collect “relevant books” from the library (the assignment did not call for research) and setting me up with the stack of them and a full pot of tea at the dinner table before he turned in for the night. He may well have said something about the pleasures of reading alone at night—that’s the kind of thing he would have pointed out to me, that would have taken in me. It’s equally likely that he left me alone, surrounded by books, to discover pleasure on my own terms.
Delving into my first venture in late-night literary criticism, I fell headlong into the satisfaction of thinking in the cavern of solitary wakefulness. I have little memory of the play now, and no recollection at all of the secondary texts we compiled. But I do remember the feeling when a cluster of wispy observations suddenly assembled themselves into an idea with explanatory power: the thrill of something you’d been seeking suddenly being present, just like that. Of it being in the room with you; of it letting itself be known. I described it the next day to my dad, who oversaw my Catholic upbringing, and he told me I’d had an “epiphany.” I wish I could tell you more about what this revelation actually was; all I can say is that it had to do with a discussion of Ruth’s undergarments, which revealed to me that while we expect the “true meaning” to be the naked body hidden beneath the dress of dialogue, it is actually, as I scrawled triumphantly on the sheet of loose-leaf paper, “the underwear of the play.”
I don’t know how to give you a good sense of the person I was then. Clearly I was on the cusp of discovering that an academic devotion to language might draw from the same well of energy that made bodies, self-presentation, and erotic tension newly compelling. (Why Pinter? Just imagine if someone had put Lorraine Hansberry into my hands at that moment!) Precocious, but transitioning from one order of precocities to another. Awake, eager, waiting for anything to happen. I spent that night reading Pinter and, I’m sure, a bunch of essays by men about Pinter. And do you know what I was listening to all night, on my tape deck?
The Makem & Clancy Concert, which a nice if strange boy named Colin, whom I’d met at a party, copied for me from his dad’s double LP.
This is not an essay about Makem & Clancy, though that album really was a lesson in enthusiastic melancholy, not to mention my gateway to Baudelaire. I just think it’s important for you to know how not cool I was in that moment. I wanted to be cool, desperately. I was, I see in hindsight, closer than I’d ever been in my life. The eastward drift of grunge and resulting shift in the cultural weather of suburban Western New York was undeniably in my favor. But I wasn’t there yet. Musically, in the fall of 1991, in addition to jigs and reels I was very much into: 1. Andrew Lloyd Webber, 2. oboe concertos, 3. Paula Abdul.
What changed was this: I started listening to Rochester’s community radio station, WBER (“The Only Station That Matters”).
As I remember it, most of the DJs were local college students, very few of them women. But it wasn’t properly a college rock station, and they tended to broadcast a chaotic mix of synthpop, art rock, industrial, and local folk as well as all the stuff we called “alternative,” not yet “indie.” My earworms in early 1992—the songs I’d taped off the radio and put on every mixtape—included King Missile’s “Sex With You,” Meryn Cadell’s “The Sweater,” The Breeders’ “Fortunately Gone,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole,” Ani DiFranco’s “Both Hands,” and Blue Clocks Green’s “Hemingway.” (This last one was a real ethical trial for my dad, who was upset by the light treatment of suicide but eager for me to find Hemingway interesting. Sadly, my interest was light, and limited to his suicide.) There was an evening show focused on the discographies of a single band or artist; I stocked up on 120-minute blank tapes to catch showcases of Throwing Muses, The Pixies, The Sugarcubes.
At some point, a song entered the regular rotation called “Sheela-Na-Gig,” by a British singer named PJ Harvey.
Do you remember where you were the first time you heard PJ Harvey call the conversation to order with that opening guitar lick, take a deep breath, and incant as if with the last breath of tested patience, I’ve been trying to show you/over and over? The plaintive sweetness with which she blazons herself into “childbearing hips,” “ruby red, ruby lips,” “workstrong arms,” then insists, You’ve got to see my / bottle full of charms? Her diction elegant, but the prosody distorted by the stress on “of,” rendering this weirdly trite, salaciously oblique metaphor distinctly ominous. It’s so pretty, and pained, and playful. And then when “you turn around” to speak back, you become “he,” and “his” voice opens a floodgate to bass and drums (Stephen Vaughan and Robert Ellis, respectively), and he is screaming at her:
Do you remember where you were the first time you heard Polly Jean Harvey roar over those power chords, “PUT MONEY IN YOUR IDLE HOLE”?
Thanks to NIN, I had already embraced the image of “the hole” as a trope for the damage a money-worshipping world will do to a person. But for all the sweaty energy of Trent Reznor’s anthem of protest, his hole is purely figurative: the head that bows down before “God Money” is like a hole, and that’s enough to make one scream. NIN’s “Head Like a Hole” is, in this sense, akin to Cyndi Lauper’s 1988 “Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China),” a vaguely orientalist ditty whose parenthetical subtitle emphasizes that the hole, like the heart, of which she sings is purely on the order of cliché and must not be confused with anything that could happen in material reality. It’s just a feeling; her literal heart is fine (thank goodness). Blue Clocks Green’s “Hemingway” actually offers the more macabre prospect of one’s head becoming a hole, but there is no actual hole in that song. Hemingway’s head is simply nothing once the gruesome damage has been done—it has been blown “away.”
In “Sheela-Na-Gig,” money is not a god and the hole is not a metaphor. They are both horribly visceral in the cruel command that she stuff her “idle” orifice with cash: a gesture that wrings value out of her body at the expense of any possibility that it will ever be adored. Gonna wash that man right outta my hair, she quips earlier, ventriloquizing Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gonna take my hips to a man who cares. But playful figures of feminine embodiment are no match for the vulgarity “he” finds in her actual body, which he can only imagine in terms of the capitalist trifecta of labor, spectacle, and trash. The song plunges toward its conclusion along the relentless refrain of his disgust and dismissal:
He said, “Wash your breasts, I don’t want to be unclean”;
He said, “Please take those dirty pillows away from me.”
I first heard all this in the passenger seat of my family’s “little red car,” a used 2-door Toyota Tercel I would learn to drive myself in a couple of years, and eventually total on I-95 trying to drive a boyfriend to a job interview through Hurricane Floyd. In 1992, my dad and I spent a lot of time driving together in the little red car. He worked at my school, and after years of struggle my mother had given up on trying to get me out of the house on time in the morning with her and my sisters, so I would take my time and drive in with him, leisurely and late. I don’t remember whether it was during our morning commute down route 441 to 490 East, or the evening commute back. But this song came on the radio and filled the car and when it was over, one of us said to the other, “what was that?”
How did we research things before the internet? It’s bizarrely hard for me to remember, though I’m of the generation that didn’t have email prior to college. My dad, as I’ve established, was my primary research coach. He probably helped me track down the definition of “Sheela-na-gig”: a medieval-era stone grotesque found on churches throughout the UK, a front-facing figure brazenly displaying an exaggerated vulva. I learned that no one, not even all the male experts, can say for sure what it means. There is no underwear in this play.
But my research into PJ Harvey was self-directed, and pursued late at night after everyone else had gone to bed. At night, you could call in to WBER and request whatever you wanted and more often than not the DJ would just play it. I submitted entire playlists and they were delivered. The night after I first heard “Sheela-Na-Gig,” I called in and asked who the artist was. “PJ Harvey” was, at that time, the name of the whole band, but it was hard not to hear the whole band as the resonant body of its frontwoman Polly Jean as it writhed and thrusted its way through every single track of their debut LP, Dry. It was the sound of a woman keeping vigil in the midst of an onslaught, stealing idioms of longing and lament to chant anthems to every unspeakable feeling.
I called back another night, possibly the very next night, and asked for everything they had by PJ Harvey so I could tape it, but at that time it was just the first single. The DJ came on the air and said (I wrote it down, I was so chuffed to become a character on the radio, and later put it all in a short story), “You know, it’s interesting what you hear at night. Here’s a young woman, who sounds happy, like she has her whole life together, and she calls up in the middle of the night and asks for doom. I don’t get it! But that’s what she wants. Ok, to the young woman who needs some doom in her life, here it is!”
I’ve been trying to show you
over and over
PJ Harvey did not sound like doom to me. It sounded, if anything, like a woman staring doom in the face, singing it a dangerous serenade: take me in, but you have no idea what I am or what I can do. That year, my year of nighttime epiphany, was the year my whole body became an instrument of understanding. Through it, I was learning how the things young women are given to love thrive on our doom. And what I wanted to know was this: what do we thrive on instead?
I never re-read The Homecoming, or anything else by Pinter. I’m sure he’s great. I do still occasionally listen to The Makem & Clancy Concert, which I have on vinyl now. It’s great. But to PJ Harvey, and a host of other brazen women coercing the sound of their flourishing out of every inch of flesh, every instrument in reach, I listened over and over. I still do. I stay awake.