Guitarist Keith Levene died this week. He's one of those musicians unknown by most but legendary among true heads. I did not get initiated until I was in grad school and picked up Simon Reynolds' incomparable post-punk tome, Rip It Up And Start Again. British punk's creation myth starts with the Sex Pistols, and Reynolds appropriately located post-punk's origins in Public Image Ltd, the band formed when Johnny Rotten became plain old John Lydon again. I had thought of PiL in terms of their pretty tepid 90s output, not knowing how amazing their early stuff could be. Levene's arty, fractured guitar playing was key to the band's sound, and made the three chords and a cloud of dust riffing on punk seem pretty lame and pedestrian by comparison.
Their self-titled first album still had some fierce riffing, but their next, Second Edition/Metal Box (US and UK versions, respectively) sounded like nothing else that came before. Lydon's voice sounds forcibly restrained, no longer sneering and spitting but a half-scream caught in his throat. Jah Wobble's bass is a kind of wall of dread, dub as played by the devil if he'd never picked up an instrument before. Levene's guitar, angular, caustic, meandering, was like a punk rocker had been locked in a room for a year with only free jazz and prog records to listen to.
It sounds best to me on "Swan Lake" off of Second Edition, originally given the evocative title "Death Disco." It's about the death of Lydon's beloved mother, an anguished cry of despair about the finality dying. The line "the silence in your eyes" so aptly describes the feeling of looking at someone you've always known but suddenly they are not there anymore, just their body. The song perversely incorporates a disco beat and the melody from Tschaikovsky's "Swan Lake," but it's Levene's curtains of jangly feedback that make it all work. I guess it's appropriate to remember him with a song about death.