Lost Song From Silver Jews' Magnificent American Water
I Discover a Classic & Obscure 'Porky Prime Cut'!
With disbelief I deciphered the writing in the dead wax: A Porky Prime Cut it read, not etched in some old Led Zeppelin or Mountain record from the '70s, but on this circa '98 seven-inch from the Silver Jews, the recording project of late poet and songwriter David Berman. Porky Prime Cut!, I thought to myself, that means George Peckham, the legendary mastering engineer whose work for Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, T. Rex, and others is brain-bendingly beautiful! What is it doing in this obscure Silver Jews record?
When I picked up this item more than twenty years ago, it never occurred to me to check the dead wax on a record, and even if I had, the message "A Porky Prime Cut," would have been meaningless to me. But as the late David Berman might have said, a lot of digital tears have been shed since then. Looking at George Peckham's credits on Discogs, I found that not only did he master all-time classics like Led Zeppelin IV, but also post-punk monuments from Joy Division and the Fall, which explains Peckham's credit on this 'lil indie-rock masterpiece.
An out-take from the American Water sessions, "Self-Ignition" is a quintessential Silver Jews song, maybe the quintessential Silver Jews song: as Steve Malkmus provides Keith Richards-like backing vocals and Mick Taylor-style guitar embellishment, David Berman narrates his lyrics of stirring surrealism: "Gently thinking backwards about the psychedelic promises God made to me in the dark," and "I couldn't believe it when I saw that you wrote/ That a burning passenger shouldn't ruin the boat," astonishing lines which could have been part of his greatest hit if he hadn't buried it.
Anyone who doubts the superior audio fidelity of analog over digital should listen to "Self-Ignition" c/w "Send In the Clouds." Listening to the former on YouTube, David Berman seems to say, "The pumpkin on the porch is trying to kill itself," but when I listen to the 7" on my turntable, the line ends with "...trying to heal itself." The difference between the words "kill" and "heal" pretty much says it all about the staggering difference between analog and digital, but rarely does that difference translate to such a violent assault upon meaning.
Such is the Silver Jews' dark comedy, composed of equal parts triumph and failure. Pitchfork named American Water one of the best albums of the '90s, and this, Berman's "Hey Jude" or "Sympathy for the Devil," is, in a typical piece of David Berman self-defeat, not on that record, but buried on the B-side of an import-only 7" single-- and mastered by no less than George Peckham at Abbey fucking Road studios! And thus another chapter in the annals of rock's burn-out/fade-away story is written, with a song from the Silver Jews titled "Self-Ignition."