Many of us sat awestruck in the early 80’s as David Bowie rapidly aged during Catherine Deneuve’s and Susan Sarandon’s power struggle in The Hunger (MGM, 1983). For me, however, the film was most memorable for its opening scene which featured Peter Murphy of Bahuas performing Bela Lugosi’s Dead (label: Small Wonder; 1979). Even though Nico, the lead singer of Velvet Underground had used the term gothic music back in 1971, it would be twelve years later at the movies before I would become conscious of this dark horse, post-punk genre of which Bahaus was the frontrunner. And it would take me another 28 years to discover the most esoteric of the modern gothic forms – goth ukulele – as manifest by Scott Miller on his 2011 CD titled PAUL PENNYFEATHER.
Now Scott, a self-described Anglophile, drew this title from the 1929 Evelyn Waugh novel Decline And Fall, in which the protagonist – Paul Pennyfeather – has his sense of character repeatedly divided as he falls farther from himself socially and spiritually, only to literally return to where he started by the novel’s end. While Waugh’s novel perhaps serves as an early prototype of gothic angst, Scott’s ukulele songs are anything by prototypical. They are, in fact, a whole new breed within the goth music cathedral.
What makes Miller’s music so unique is his paradoxical blend of the dramatically simplistic. The simplistic lies in the ukulele itself, a four stringed reduction of the modern six stringed guitar. Though fewer toned than its more popular cousin, the ukulele gives Scott inherent emphasis over the dead spaces, or inter-tones between each note where everything is about the nothingness rather than the sounds at either end. This in turn unexpectedly dramatizes the emptiness that is characteristic of both gothic music and those drawn to it, his creative and at times humorous lyrics only further adding to the paradoxical darkness and lightness of his songs.
Starting off with PICNIC, you waft through a comical world of canned tuna swimming up river, while the bees are buzzed on honey wine and sneezes wait for their god bless you. This is followed by Scott’s darkly humored signature track ASHES GOOD, DUST BAD, where he declares his intentions for the afterlife with the instructions to toast me like a marshmallow. Next comes THE DAVID HAYMAN SCAR, a tribute to the famous Scottish actor’s distinctive facial cicatrix which he sometimes uses to great character effect in his acting roles. The CD then apexes on track four, LEMON FLOWER, a cover of the Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) tune that laments the sting of both the acidic fruit’s flower and acidic love, a perennial theme for a goth enthusiasts.
The back half of Miller’s CD begins with EXTRA SPECIAL, a hail to the London brewed ale that’s bitter enough for any gothic chant. This is then followed by the haunting and hollow I FOUGHT A RABBIT where the animal’s disembodied foot seeks vengeance as eagerly as any disembodied soul. Everything then comes to a climatic end in ROCKET, a crashing antithetical narrative of disjointed opposites where the wooden horse went off its rocker while the artist drew a big crowd and Puget Sound got too loud.
Just like gothic music, all and all Scott Miller’s PAUL PENNYFEATHER is as much about what’s in it as it is about what’s not. The hollow and hallowed spaces between the tones, instrumental and lyrical, are as perceptive and piercing as the music and lines themselves, just as gothic music laments the nots of life while being fully there. So the next time you think you’ve heard it all, turn on Scott’s goth ukulele and hear that special nothing you’ve never heard before.