ISSUE  1   2   3  

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 5     SUBMIT

Off the Top of My
Radiohead


Stephen Paul Miller

Computer, do your best,
okay? is this a new birth
of freedom? “Talking to
my girlfriend, [homer
simpson tells god he’s a
great guy so ‘why don’t
you have a girlfriend?’]
waiting for something to
happen,” sings
Radiohead in its 1995
CD title track The
Bends
, the bends
suggesting coming up
for air and being
punished for it. “I wish,”
the song continues, “it
was the 60s, I wish I
could be happy/ I wish, I
wish, I wish that
something would
happen.” Similarly,
Stuart Murdoch of Belle
and Sebastian recalls
others in the mid-90’s
feeling “all the great
music had been done...it
was impertinent to even
try to make another
song.” But Stuart still
tries to produce “all
instruments equal” and
though the sixties
oppress he aspires to it.
He also speaks of rock
requiring bad poetry,
“pop music is bad
poetry,” I think so the
words can melt into a
more generative whole
or union as Lincoln
deemphasizes the states
to throw it all on
something bigger
reverberating on the
freeing of the
infinitesimal the big
falls back on the small
or that’s the idea
anyway and how
Whitman crafts modern
poetry—by organizing
poems as massive
responses to themes
grammatically organized
to stop and start with
every biblically
organized line—
Baudelaire uses related
prose strategies—and
hey maybe Radiohead—
or leader, singer Thom
Yorke—is a kind of
Lincoln/Whitman in that
Radiohead passes rhyme
and bridge and chorus to
new attention on the
reverb, the weirdly
chaos-processed small
effect generated yet just
right shaped reverbs—

and the value neutral
quality quality of words
lyrics poetry IS poetry
and we forget how the
mid-90s seems stuck in
the 60s, and World
Wide Web interfacing
with graphic user
interface—GUI—is so
crucial in linking
personal computers to
something bigger, and
maybe that’s under the
political unconscious’s
rise that is behind
Radiohead. A student
directs me to that band
in the early 90s. Mario’s
the only student who in
a downtown poet kind of
way wants to be me
though I teach others
who write well. The
whole notion of models
figures because I don't
know Radiohead names
itself after a Talking
Heads song when I
name this piece
“Talking to Radio
Heads,” which isn't that
great a title knowing
now “Radiohead” is a
song in True Stories, the
David Byrne film I
never see. I see the
Talking Heads as the
most sixties punk band,
the most sentimental. A
simple thesis is that
punk is the mainstream
thing that can’t be
mainstreamed, a cultural
counter to across-the-
boards 60s intoxication-
influence. But there’s
something full of
“escape hooks” in
Talking Heads songs
and really that’s what I
like. I’m 14 for Revolver
and Blonde on Blonde
and I’m too old for
everything else. I lose
myself in Prince,
Talking Heads, Steely
Dan but for me they all
hang on the 60s. I wish I
got more into Radiohead
in the 90s but I lose my
sound system, I don’t
know but this is my
video for them. Put on
Radiohead while you
read this in other words.
Radiohead reduplicates
the Beatles by slowing
down the instrumentals
to get a feeling of
stopped time and then
singing to the slowed
down instrumental.
(Does Oasis do that
too?—Sadaam Hussein
is Hitler the way Oasis
is the Beatles says Bill
Maher) Thom Yorke
kids himself about being
Beatle-obsessed but I
don’t know, he seems to
mean it though I think
he passes them in terms
of predominant song
structure though the Beatles have
precedents—I always
think “Revolution
Number Nine” is
underrated, I mean I
think it’s important that
Radiohead songs
needn’t come full circle
or break neatly into
stanzas and chorus
bridges—they are
shaped. Hey, it’s odd
True Stories is sorta

about computers. I’m
watching it now and
there’s a kinda
integrated circuit factory
where a worker sings
“Radio Head,” the song
that I guess Radiohead
kinda likes. The worker
sings he’s a receiver and
his co-worker’s a
transmitter. Another
character tells David
Byrne computers are
like music—mysterious
connections of feeling
and rhythm. Apple and
Steve Jobs are
mentioned favorably.
Someone sings “Radio
Head” again near film’s
end. Yeah, the song’s
sorta about people as
computers linking, a
“radio head! The sound
of a brand-new world.”
The computer is a totem
for unity, union in post-
World War II culture. At
a party I ask a phd
student working in
anthropology how to use
totems. He looks at my
name tag and realizes
my last critical book’s
on his doctoral
qualifying exam’s
reading list but I ruin it
by letting him figure out
that book is as crazy as
this poem. But he directs
me to an essay that’ll
clarify totems for me so
I can keep writing this.
Speak of the Beatles—
the doctoral student
directs me to an
anthropologist Sherry
Ortner essay leading me
to Stephen Pepper’s
“root metaphor”
concept, but then
ultimately back to
Ortner’s schema that
totems are part of a
culture’s key symbols—
on the one hand there’s
“summing symbols” like
flags that tend to order
and perhaps command
you around though they
still can explain things
and elaborate—sort of
how hit singles, which
Jerry Leiber once
calls—hey, I actually
had a long talk with him
once and he liked me!—
“commercials for
themselves,” so I think
that’s part of the Beatle
allure—that their
crossover to albums
from singles is seamless
cuz even though hits and
summing symbols
explain things too—this
distinction’s after all a
continuum and summing
symbols are in fact
necessary for
explanation BUT there
are also “elaborating
symbols” that explain
and draw things out—
this is a poem-essay
because the poem part is
fun and sums things up,
but you need the
discourse, the back and
forth, the essay, the
elaborative symbols,
which themselves are of
two types—first,
metaphors we use to
explain everything, how
the Dinkas compare
everything to cattle and,
second, scenarios and
forms like get-rich-
quick-schemes, the rise
of fall, etc. I think rock
is great when packed
with key summation
hooks that move
forward through micro-
and mega-elaborative
symbols for surface and
depth. That’s when rock
happens as cultural
phenomena. The early
Talking Heads anticipate
widespread graphic user
interface, heralding a
new cold war meltdown
micro-period and the
early Radioheads
prefigure the world wide
web. Right? That’s why
computers are okay.
Right? Let’s walk
through that 1997
album. It begins all
floaty, an airbag in
“Airbag” “back to save
the universe” because,
we’re all corny born
again “born again” but
no really “In the neon
sign, / scrolling up and
down, / I am born
again.” Hard not to think
of the scrolling neon
sign as gui-graphic user
interface-about to be
hooked together by the
internet. Right? The
Talking Heads prefigure
gui—I think anyway—
what do you think?
There’s something
simple and colorful
about them and it makes
sense their videos
conceive space
conceptually—they
move past Michael
Jackson videos, not to
take anything anyway
from him or anyone else
but I love “Airbag,” the
first song on Okay,
Computer
, Spin’s choice
for the best album of the
last 25 years, okay, I’m
taken in by the hype.
“Airbag,” the first song
makes me feel saved all
over. I mean from
Nirvana, which I think is
a kind of summing band
to the explanatory
Radioheads—Ladies
and Gentlemen—the
explanatory
Radiohead!!! In
“Paranoid, Android,”
one is paranoid cuz you
are an android, you

know like the way we
are touchy because we
are not real. Hey, don’t
be so touchy!
We all come from the
Beatles—Yorke credits
the Beatles’s “Happiness
Is a Warm Gun” with
giving them permission
to meld three songs into
“Paranoid, Android” but
they might meld better
than the Beatles. There
might be something
portable-computer ipod
about Arcade Fire but
I’m not sure they in any
way surpass the Beatles.
Maybe. But then, I
forgot “Day in the
Life”—the black hole
song at the center of the
Beatle galaxy—is a
meld—still there’s
something strangely
texturally, harmonically,
even melodically
coherent about
“Paranoid Android.”
Anyway, “Subterranean
Homesick Alien”
normalizes Dylan from
the eye of a ufo, I guess.
What’s the matter with
me, I don’t have much
to say, the album is
racing past me, human
racing. “Exit Music (For
a Film)” is sweetly
nasty, ending “we hope
you choke, that you
choke.” “Let Down” is a
rather alienated anthem.
I hope you’re enjoying
this walk. “This is what
you’ll get,” says “Karma
Police.” What you’ll get
for listening to me, I
guess. I’m looping
through OK, Computer
cuz I’m your Radiohead
tapehead. Feel free to
introduce yourself,
Savreen—I’m on the
other side of radiohead.
See you on the other
side. I’m interested in
the WW2 reference of
Karma Police
concerning a girl with a
Hitler cut. Computers
are of course okay in
Britain cuz their
invention breaks the
German code preventing
U-Boats from choking
off Britain from
American supplies,
preventing a Nazi
England. If totems need
structural tension then
you can argue
computers are in weird
opposition to the end of
the Enlightenment/
Holocaust totems and
post-WW2 nationally
oriented European/white
flight American
suburban totems. The
Holocaust and suburbs
balance on the
computer. Is that a valid
totemic system? I have
to email that grad
student, W.J.T. Mitchell,
Levi-Straus, and
Derrida. In any case
though I feel that strong
if teetering balance in
Radiohead. In the end,
the Karma Police “lose
themselves” and the
Drifter does escape.
That’s the kind of art I
like. “Fitter Happier” is
a computerized voice’s
list/checklist setting up
the kind of hard rock
reverb of
“Electioneering,” a song
that is one in mind with
the British Poll Tax
riots: “Riot shields,
voodoo economics,
it's just business, cattle
prods and the I.M.F.
I trust I can rely on your
vote.” Yes, I’m the
taxman.
“Climbing up the Walls”
does just that as it listens
to the next song, “No
Surprises,” a lullaby.
The lyrics counterpart
the sleepy music with a
joy at wasting away: “A
heart that's full up like a
landfill,
a job that slowly kills
you,
bruises that won't heal.
You look so tired-
unhappy,
bring down the
government,
they don't, they don't
speak for us.
I'll take a quiet life,
a handshake of carbon
monoxide.” Wasting
away in a nice way,
blurring into the
charming allusions to
delusions of grandeur in
the next song, “Lucky”:
“The head of state has
called for me by name
but I don't have time for
him.
It's gonna be a glorious
day!
I feel my luck could change.

Pull me out of the
aircrash,
Pull me out of the lake,
I'm your superhero,
we are standing on the
edge.
We are standing on the
edge.” No, we’re almost
done, says the Taxman, I
mean the Eggman.
Mario was right in 1994
or 5 or 6. He couldn’t
have turned me on to
OK, Computer cuz he
died in 1996, and could
have told me, like
“Tourist,” the last song
in OK, Computer, “Hey
man, slow down, slow
down,
idiot, slow down, slow
down.” It’s okay,
computer, hey, constant
computer, you’re okay.