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Figures of Light

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It’s Lame” 7" (Norton)

by Jill Hubley

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The 1970s saw an economic malaise, felt harshly in New York City, that made it harder for the public at large to manage and summarily swept DIY filmmaking under the rug. Until this change, Wheeler Winston Dixon had been producing incredibly cheap independent short films and living amongst a community of filmmakers on society’s margins. Come the ‘70s, Dixon did not stop making films but certainly felt the brunt of the economic downturn. In ‘72 he briefly switched mediums and released a 7" single with his band, Figures of Light. Composed of independent naysayers similar to his film society friends, the band produced a record that was raw, loud, and nothing like the prevailing music of the time. Dixon and his band had their own vision and interpretation of the times, and they’d be damned if they weren’t going to make it heard.

Dixon started making short films almost as soon as he could walk. Handed a standard 8-mm camera at age six, Dixon embarked on a lifelong obsession with celluloid. By age 14, in 1964, Wheeler was hanging out with graduate film students in New Jersey and experimental filmmakers in New York City, all the while making his own pictures. Eight years later, he recorded the Figures of Light record. Pressed in the ungodly small quantity of 100 on the Black Swan label, the record was pretty much unknown until this past year when Norton Records reissued it.

Figures of Light formed, as Dixon recalls, during the beginning “of disco, which was omnipresent in New York City in the early ‘70s, and which, of course, was absolutely brain dead. Most people just followed the crowd...but that struck me as really dull and elitist. Everything I was against.” What he championed in music were the same elements he pushed in experimental film: cheapness, rawness, dysfunction, loudness, and destruction. Additionally, his work blended personal narrative with a response to larger social and political issues, albeit often filed down to generalities. His 1969 film The DC 5 Memorial Film mixed shots of home movies and parties with footage of five women who had just returned from a Vietnam War protest in Washington D.C. A later film, simply titled Damage, stretched a six-second clip of a barn being blown up to four minutes: “a rather inexorable metaphor for the end of the New York era.”

Given all this, it’s not so surprising that when Dixon, Michael Downey, Philip Cohen, and Dennis Druzbik formed their band, they decided that while they learned to play their instruments (3 months) they ought to collect all the TV sets they could find in order to smash them at their debut. They wound up with somewhere between 15 and 27 (accounts vary) and demolished them with axes and sledgehammers: “a reaction to the way the media was projecting the images of the Vietnam War in the news.” Of course, who knows how much of the political angle is rewritten history—it may have just been some young guys destroying shit. That first Figures of Light show started with a motorcycle blazing down the aisle of Scott Hall at Rutgers University and the band smashing a copy of American in Paris that was spinning on stage. Though I’m skeptical of the too-good-to-be-true political motivation behind Figures of Light’s performance, there’s no doubt in my mind that Dixon positively detests elitist crap music, whether it be the KC & the Sunshine Band or, as in this case, Gershwin, whose main goal as a composer was to write songs that everybody would like. Dixon’s idea of a great composer was more along the lines of Charles Ives (whose 4 th symphony he used to score The DC 5 Memorial Film), a recluse who rejected tradition and held a job in insurance so that his scores didn’t need to pander to public taste. Clearly, this was the charge to which Figures of Light bowed.

Phil and Dennis split before the band’s lone single “It’s Lame,” was recorded, but the songs don’t suffer for it. “It’s Lame” starts out with inept caveman instrumentation and then comes into itself when the vocals are unleashed. It’s not often that you hear raw disgust barked from the lips of a young man on vinyl from so early in the 70s, but Wheeler delivers the message of this song soaked in bloody vitriol. It’s lame / so lame / it’s all the same / and it’s all lame. Without the snarling closeness of the vocals, the music might sound aloof—merely sloppy rather than out of control. As the song progresses, there are many mixed metaphors, a rhyme scheme that would make Shakespeare cry, and an overabundant use of reverb, all the makings of a shit-fi classic. It’s also incredibly catchy, the instrumentation serving as a glorified metronome to which you can keep your head bobbing steady as you agree with the band, “Yes. It IS all lame!”

The flipside of this record continues to draw on Figures of Light’s cited influences, the Velvet Underground and Stooges, as well as weirdo artfuckery and, hey why not, maybe the Vietnam War. “I Jes Wanna Go to Bed” opens with a squealing guitar and shot production. The vocals that enter sound like they’re returning for their fifth or sixth visit, like a warbling line on a record that keeps skipping. And the message could not be more true to a bunch of damaged, angry kids: I don’t wanna fall in love…I don’t wanna get ahead…I don’t wanna wind up dead…I jes wanna go to bed.

Good night.

Quotes from Dixon came from this 2003 interview by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.