#269: The Jesus and Mary Chain, "Psychocandy" (1985)

“Pure? What does it mean?”

    - Sylvia Plath, “Fever 103°”

I’d love to be able to tell Sylvia Plath that I know what “pure” means. Pure is a sound. Pure is a place where noise becomes poetry. Pure is Psychocandy, a fusion of sex and despair and offerings-up. Psychocandy is bedroom music; starting with the Reid brothers brooding and dreaming in a too-small space in East Kilbride, Scotland, to me, over thirty years later, looking at a picture of my childhood bedroom in suburban Connecticut, circa 1982, and remembering that five or six years later, I started writing song lyrics on the wall, and ripping up the carpet, not caring that the house was a rental and that I had no permission to do those things. The exposed carpet tacks that bordered the floor-edge near the door were for other people to step on; I either invited you in, or you didn’t come in.

Step back and watch the sweet thing
Breaking everything she sees

    - The Jesus and Mary Chain, “Happy When it Rains”

I close my eyes for a minute while I’m listening to “Taste the Floor” and the feedback and noise carve out places in my body. This noise doesn’t mean to do me harm. I take it into me, like a tuning fork or a divining rod. I can hold on to it. It runs through me the way those first moments of “Everything in its Right Place” ran through me the first time I heard that in 2000: I was afraid, because a noise knew what lived in my head. How did it know? How does a sound so devastating know, now, what an almost-43-year-old holds in her head (She’s singing to herself / as she’s singing in herself)? Noise and pain sing in me, and the music guesses this. It doesn’t tell me I should have worked through this by now. Instead it tells me don’t turn off.

And I watch, And I watch, And I watch

    - The Jesus and Mary Chain, “In a Hole”

I want to tell you that in 1985, when Psychocandy dropped, I was the cool kid, playing it incessantly, alternating between it and New Order’s Low Life, which also came out that year. I could tell you that, but I’d be lying to you. I was eleven years old in 1985, by most accounts weird, and by my own, desperate. I looked the part, dressing in the approved uniforms of affluent pre-teen 80s suburbia, but I was tall for my age, with puberty encroaching. I slouched. I turned my shoulders in, hoping no one would notice my body. It was all right to show enthusiasm, but not too much, for books or art, and I was too enthusiastic. I danced to Madonna in the living room of that rented house, and I said I wanted to be a writer. It was the only thing I knew from a small lifetime of watching: the arbitrary cruelties of school, the way my mother almost succumbed to a near-lethal episode of depression. The way words moved on a page, and held people like me long after the authors had gone. I watched and I watched and I watched.

Paula Mejia, in her 33 1/3 volume on Psychocandy, writes that it’s “an album that viscerally clangs with the sound of struggle and outcasts making sense of their bitterness, using music as survival and, ultimately, a form of escape” (24). Would I have known what to do with Psychocandy’s poetry-noise if someone had handed it to me in 1985? Probably not. I knew about escape; I made up other worlds in my bedroom all the time. I borrowed other people’s pop fantasies, not understanding that I needed one of my own. If you had asked me about bitterness, I probably could have owned up to unhappiness, but bitter has an edge on it. It would take a few more years, and hours of bedroom listening, before bitterness seeped in.

Listening to the album now, I bite down on the noise. It’s that solid. It tastes like copper; heavy, with the sharpness of blood. It’s singing like myself, a poem of feedback. Hold on to the knife in the socket, it says. Hold on to the purest burn.

—Sarah Nichols