My neighbor Brad was on the phone trying to find out if a friend was going to meet us downtown. Instead, he got Stoner Roommate No. 2. Even unbaked, this Spicoli-alike wouldn’t have understood whom we were heading to see. Just about everybody missed out on Mission of Burma the first time around, and some of us are just now catching up.
Brad is a recent convert, having discovered the band only last week. His wife, Marlo, had at least heard of Burma before. And I’d been waiting for this night for about 19 years, having stumbled across the galvanizing six-song Signals, Calls, and Marches and its prickly full-length follow-up, Vs., a year or so after the Boston art-punk quartet split up in the spring of 1983. Perhaps I could have wangled an ID and caught them in New York when I was in high school. But by the time I started going to concerts, it was already too late.
The Chicago date on Burma’s farewell tour drew six people. Four years, 40-odd songs, 365 showssix people. The version of “Dumbells” preserved on the posthumous live album The Horrible Truth About Burma may sound hot enough to boil Lake Michigan, but the applause could have been dubbed in from a birthday party. It has often been remarked that Burma was ahead of its time”outside the cage of the age,” as its own declaration of independence, “This Is Not a Photograph,” has it. This much is sure: Burma is a hard band to get used to and a harder one to love, but once you acquire that taste, you can’t get enough of it. It never wears out its welcome, because however well you know it, you can’t completely get a handle on it.
Twenty years is long enough for a group like that to get the cult it deserves. Last Friday night, the 9:30 Club saw a thousand fans, many of whom knew Burma only from its records, seeking the familiar feeling of not knowing quite where they stood. They weren’t disappointed. From the rebirth of Pere Ubu in the late ’80s to the temporary reunion of the Raincoats in the mid-’90s to Wire’s dusting off its late-’70s repertoire during the past few years, art-punks have consistently shown up the conventional wisdom that old bands are better remembered than revived. Inspired to regroup in part by the attention it received since being given a chapter in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, Mission of Burma is the countertrend’s latest milestone.
Guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley, and drummer Peter Prescott roared through their back catalog, and the smattering of new songs, while not yet played with the fire of the old ones, didn’t divert the momentum. Tape-loop maestro and soundman Martin Swope is AWOL from the music industry in Hawaii, but he was ably replaced by Shellac bassist Bob Weston, Prescott’s former Volcano Suns bandmate. If the sound was not quite as punishing as legend had led me to expect, it was a necessary compromise, Burma having been one of very few outfits to split over auditory differences. The group disbanded when Miller’s tinnitus, which predated his Burma days, became unbearable. He has worn shooting-range-style hearing protectors for years and now performs with a Plexiglas barrier shielding him from Prescott’s kit.
Because it has toured only sporadically since starting up 13 months ago, the renewed Burma is still a young enough proposition that you could participate in Conley’s surprise when everything came together perfectly. “I love that song!” he screamed at the end of the throbbing, overcresting “Trem Two.” There was no arrogance in it, only the shocked joy of once again being subsumed into something huge.
The horrible truth about Burma isn’t, as the band likes to joke, how much more ragged the live show is than the painstakingly produced albumsthe rave-ups and meltdowns are hardly unwelcomebut how much weaker each member is outside the fold. Alone, Prescott is a dogged punk lifer, Miller a muso obscurantist, and Conley, frankly, a bit of wuss”Mr. Milquetoast,” he says, and his new band, Consonant, bears him out. But together, and with Swope or Weston scrawling all over the trio with altered traces of its own performance, they’re the quintessential postpunk act.
A co-worker of Gunsmoke radio great William Conrad once spoke admiringly of how the actor held his strength in reserve; however angry or violent he got, you knew he had more to spare. You weren’t afraid of what Marshal Dillon did, but of what he might do. Mission of Burma is the same way. A furious performance such as that given “Learn How” Friday night still never goes for broke. There’s no release, just a collaging of different kinds of tension, as the band slams from one section into another. Though a rock-crit friend has complained about the use of the passive voice in “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” (“That’s when it all gets blown away”), the indirection is part of what makes Burma work. Even at its most anthemic, the band plays against type, pulling back, changing the subject.
Burma has melodic punk anthems, of course”Revolver,” “Academy Fight Song,” both written and sung by Conleyand they were the songs that got the crowd jumping, fists pumping, toward the end of each of Friday’s two sets. But if the bassist’s pogo-alongs are Burma’s big draw, the dissonant chords, groaning feedback, and skidding harmonics Miller slices from the full length of his overamplified guitar have always been the acid test of true devotion.
At the 9:30, Miller laid into what superfan Eric Van (my first show was his 211th) said is known as the “Mr. Science” guitar, a no-name cheapie tuned E-E-E-G#-G#-G# for Conley’s classic “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate”; “Wounded World,” a Gulf War protest song from Miller’s No Man solo project; and Prescott’s new “Fake Blood,” which the drummer snarled with a road-hardened, Bob Mould-ish rasp. Miller then switched to a hot-rodded Fender Lead II and, throughout the rest of the show, wrestled with his bandmates for dominance over his originals. Pressing back against the emphasis the songs received on record, he threatened to reclaim the bounding “Fame and Fortune” from Prescott’s trick-galloping drums and the sweeping and lyrical “Einstein’s Day” from Conley’s melodically intervalic bass.
Such internal contests have no clear victor, of course, so everyone wins. When the three turned their energies outward last weekend, going all-for-one-and-one-for-all on a headlong cover of the Dils’ “Class War,” they drove home how far apart they normally have stood from their cohort. A rousing rendition that would’ve been the pride of a lesser band came off as just a lark, something the group could do in its sleep. Burma always meant to be more unplaceable than that. As my old girlfriend once said, half-approving, half-confounded, “They’re not hardcore; they’re just fucked-up.”
Good thing, too. Somewhere along the line, “Flex your head” turned into “Gimme another rep,” and one skinhead’s version of think-fer-yerself began to sound pretty much like every other yobbo’s. For all the rebellious talk, hardcore’s opposition to Reaganites and the Moral Majority often seemed due more to the requirements of the punk social circle than to any bedrock principle. Indeed, all the punk shibboleths seem particularly empty at a Burma show. The few stage divers on the Live at the Bradford video of the last Boston gig look as if they’d chosen the wrong venue.
Notwithstanding the band’s championing of its New England comrades, its ethos never was about everyone in a scene thinking the same and doing the same things. Burma hasn’t even been about everyone in the band doing the same thingor appearing on the same stage. Swope joined the other three there only once in his career. Friday, Weston likewise participated from the back of the hall, his physical absence notable whenever it became apparent that Miller, Conley, and Prescott couldn’t possibly be responsibleat least not right at that momentfor everything coming out of the PA.
From “Peking Spring,” which came out in support of Chinese democracy and made Burma an MIT radio favorite in 1979, to “New Nails,” which railed against the Catholic Church (but not Christianity) long before it was known as a refuge for those who find NAMBLA spiritually lacking, the band has made no secret of its politics. At the 9:30, a stand in front of the drum riser held a small banner reading, “NO NEW McCARTHY ERA.” For all that, though, sloganeering has never trumped the music: The members’ politics have been incarnated in their activity as players, not as lyricists.
The poor farewell-show turnout aside, plenty of folks heard Burma and were inspired to start groups of their own. It’s hard to imagine Chicago brutalism rising without a Boston example. And given Miller’s and Swope’s roots in Ann Arbor, Mich., their band can be seen as the missing link in the evolution of Midwestern noise, tying Pere Ubu and the Stooges (a blistering cover of whose “1970” closed Friday’s show) to Big Black and Shellac. Indeed, without Mission of Burma, the entire landscape of indie and alternative rock would look different.
Still, Burma’s full impact may be unmeasurable. Its liberating impulse might be based in its sound, but it certainly doesn’t stay locked up there. In an early-’80s underground marred by insularity and lip service to high ideals, the members of Mission of Burma lived out a commitment to the unattained. Clearly, there’s no reason for them to stop now. CP