We! Are the Antennas: Two Takes on Godspeed
May 22, 2017
David McGregor and Keaten Franklin both hold great value in post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s sophomore album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven – from this spawned reflective conversation, deeper envelopment in the album, and two essays wholly inspired by the work.
These essays are below, and, as well as the music provided by Godspeed You!, make attempt at outlining our world and conveying the situations and emotions therein.
Building the Skinny Fists
The most powerful music is the music which bleeds. You can tell music is bleeding when you hear excess – an improvised riff, a voice trembling. Bleeding music is bleeding passion. This is what I’ve found in Canadian post-rock outfit Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s second album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. With songs surpassing 20 minutes in length, the record by the end is a breathing machine – a monster of calamity and pure musicianship. The band was introduced to me by David McGregor, my friend and teacher. It is for this we decided to make a creative ode to the masterful album. In my later listenings, I felt inspired to take this beast of sound and put it to paper. The result was a 4-page tale detailing the totality and trials of mankind. There is heavy emphasis on a man, representing all humans, who faces the basic tribulations faced in our lives – he also has skinny fists. I took an album with force capable of backing human existence, and attempted to write a story doing the same.
It begins in the morning in goo. Through current and salt a small baby boy lays in a blue gooey vessel in a vast sea. He is small, feeble, 8¾ months into the cycle. He blinks and sees the world around but cannot yet leave. Atop the water the sun rises, suspended high in the cloudless sky. Rays beat onto the baby boy. He floats nearer and nearer the Island. He is not one of the ones poached by fowl or sent asunder by crashing wave. No, he is strong.
Shaped by the Crimson Hands, this boy has been made for good reason, a supreme model for nature. The Crimson Hands which control the sea, which control the skies and floor, sit in the sky poised and pleased with the creation below, giant and omnipotent. The Hands are most particularly intrigued today with the development of the Boy. Soon they will ease his passage to the shores.
He is painted with cobalt ripple as his slimey transport deteriorates in preparation for his arrival to the Island. The Crimson Hands gently whisk away the remaining makeup from the tiny traveler’s conduit. They pluck and place the Boy on the Island. A sharp contrast to the hazy blue film he saw before, the Boy is blinded by the glowing, glowing world around him. As the minutes pass the waves continue small strokes to his back, the Crimson Hands hesitantly fixed above him. In just an hour he is seeing and learning the sand.
In sixty more minutes he rises and stretches. He smells the pungent salt of the sea. The Boy feels the damp black sand between his toes, his mind rapidly expanding and glowing with the influx of world around him. He sees now. Behind him is the sea which carried him those months; above him is that terrifyingly loud sun who woke him and made him know of surrounding. Next to it are those hands, red and delicate, timid but concerned. The Boy waves to the Crimson Hands. They excitedly jolt and wave back. The connection has begun. In front of him he sees an ominous beast, the Jungle. Overgrown and viridescent, the Boy cowers slightly, sitting back down with a whimper. The Hands reassure and nudge the Boy to the forestry.
He runs, for the first time now, away from the looming green and the Hands acquiesce. The Boy spends the morning breaking twigs, spitting and peeing. He experiences hunger and thirst. The Crimson Hands send him to the sea easy enough, but must be patient in feeding the fresh scamp. He is frightened of the hermit crab, bewildered at the salmon and tuna. Starfish surprise him and the jellies overjoy. He plays until the crab nips him. The hermit cuts the Boy’s thumb, and he jumps back in fear and pain, for the first time. Blood oozes and he tastes it. A quick twitch hits the Boy and hunger prevails. His skin has bronzed, and he now has a brown fluffy head of hair. Dainty with skinny fists, the Boy is becoming. He wipes the dried spit from his lips, licking the cracks and damage, now poised on devouring his recent friends.
The Hands give him tools; he fashions a hook like the claw which pierced him. Afternoon hits and he has captured several salmon. The tools have grown, as has the Boy. He has acquired the necessary equipment and comprehension to cook, to feast. The Hands have helped stoke the fire and build bounty.
After conquering fear, discovering necessity, the Boy steps to the Jungle. He peers inside, looking at the Hands in fear for reassurance. The hands point to the green. The Boy looks back on his cemetery of fishbone and ash. He knows pain and endurance to make means. Now he must penetrate the primal skills and seek larger sensation. He disappears into the brush, the Crimson Hands trembling. Hours pass.
The Man appears. The Boy has gone. The Hands tee pee above the Man, witness to the Boy’s evolution; he now has a beard, a mane on his head tied back into a circle with some sort of vine. His skin dark, scratched, and bruised, the Man reeks of lagoon and wildfire. He’s stopped growing in height but has acquired a statuesque physique. Worn and worked, the Man’s eyes read of story and danger. The Crimson Hands are most erratic in confusion and worry, but jubilant overall.
“YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE, YOU BEAUTY, YOU HANDS,” the Man yells to the sky. The Crimson Hands spiral upwards in shock – he speaks! Again the man bellows, “I know that you are hands, I know that you formed me, I know that from no more than blue muck did I come to be, and all because of you. I know what this is, I know you are red. I thank you most humbly, Hands.” The Hands meet palms, heat radiating in pleasure.
“You wouldn’t believe the story I tell. I have such story of the Jungle and its ferocity, its gentleness and chaos. So much green, Hands. Vine and leaf and twig and tree. The bark so immense, I fashioned shelter and I made great time. Oh, the creatures Hands! I met similar primate, I met slug and flying beetle. I found the Sand Book. I found it covered in the black sand from before. It told me what I say to you now Hands. It told me where I am, what is around. I know love, I know grief, I know disappointing. Thank you, thank you.” The Hands create sign of prayer, acknowledgement of his journey. He has done well. Some of these boys die, some of them don’t come back, and some return savage and vengeful to the Crimson. However, as predicted, this particular boy became Man fruitfully, discovered his fruit, and has lived a lifetime in no time.
The sun sets as the Man rambles of the running waters, the “forever valuable.” He rambles of the insects he befriended and the furry beasts he conquered. The Man praises the Sand Book, inquisitive to the profound volume and particulars of such a small object. He asks and asks of the exclusivity and downfall, why the tide comes in so strong, why the Sand Book is. He looks up to an impressive view: stars line the space as the sun has given way to a creamy moon – dying lights polka dot the indigo skyscape. The Crimson Hands still glow brightly in this upside down, oceanic firmament. They clap for the Man, fly and sway for the Man. Both dance under the infinite painting above them. The Man has constructed a fire far fiercer than the one from the morning. It rages. With black sand in his toes, and comfort above him, the Man shuts his eyes.
“A strange day, a rambunctious day. I smelled the sky and felt the atmosphere seep into my bones. I am one, I have lived; perhaps I’ll shine crimson one day. Maybe my journey will be worth it; where do I go when I sleep Hands? What do I…” the Man blathers to sleep. The Hands lift the Man and place him in the sea softly. His body bobs, peacefully dissolving to the waters. The Crimson Hands find a lachrymose sensation distinct from the countless entombment processions undergone before.
A milky moon is covered by smoke product of a raging fire from the Jungle, creatures of all color and number escaping to the black shore. Birds circle the air, large cats paw at the dirt. Below the Hands is utter chaos; insect meets amphibian, canine finds marsupial, plant meets the elements – they play. An outrageous sight below, the Crimson Hands feel humility. Crackles from the inferno serve as lighting to the wildlife dance party occurring on the ebony sand. The Hands conduct the symphony underneath, and the Man’s skinny fists float in the sea.
The Hands Return
I was introduced to Godspeed You! Black Emperor sometime around 2001. At the time, I was very much into the jam band scene, and followed bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident around the Great Lakes region. While those bands have very little in common with Godspeed, they do share a willingness to let a song stick around for a while. Jam bands aren’t afraid of song lengths in the 20+ minute range, and nor are Godspeed. It was the MP3 era, and a friend sent me a copy of East Hastings, a track from the album, F#A# OO. Much like when I first heard the Beatles in Mr. Dion’s 8th grade history class, my idea of what music could be had shifted. Coincidently, they were coming to St. Andrew’s Hall that weekend, but it was the same day as Farm Aid, where I was to see Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews(really). I passed my tickets to a friend with little hope of ever seeing the money and bought tickets to see Godspeed. The concert I liken to the psychedelic “freak-outs” hosted by Pink Floyd in the 1960’s. The venue seemed over capacity, and I sat in the mezzanine with my legs dangling over the edge watching Godspeed do what they do. Their projections showed shots of people and nature mingling in a confused sort of mess. Their field recordings warm of political corruptness, endless war, and the taking advantage of the weak and downtrodden. All of this on September 29th, 2001. While we had a sneaking suspicious that the events of 18 days ago would shape our future, we had no idea to what extent. The spoken message seemed prophetic, and the music was shaping the landscape of my musical interest for years to come.
This piece was entirely Keaten’s idea, and it was a struggle from the beginning. I have never fancied myself a creative writer, and this is no exception, but Keaten’s invitation to write in his world seemed like a fun challenge. My inspiration comes entirely from the piece you see on the adjacent page, however I tried to incorporate elements of the record, be it spoken word, or my interpretation of the sounds therein. Godspeed are an experiential band that has inspired me in many ways, but it wasn’t until this request that I felt inclined to write a short story about “How the album feels” or of a hypothetical world based on the cover art. I am appreciative of the invitation.
The Boy, now the Man, joins sinew to stone, bone to bone, stone to wood. Water enters the mixture and births machination. In this, the Crimson Hands watch with curiosity, reluctance. A part of nature, the Man’s creations evolve. While the World is rife with change he seeks his work for meditation. His work brings him solitude, safe harbor. His creations develop.
“Hands! Do you hear this hammer? It sings a song of jubilee. YOUR creation is celebrated through this!”, the Man shouts with each new feat. Time passes.
Surplus expands experience. Days not working are spent travelling. The landscapes are foreign, but his obsession with the next plateau grows. His travels culminate with an encounter with another. The Man never thought to consider his experience not unique. It was him, his hands, and The Hands, and it was good. Days are spent observing this Other.
One evening the man laments, “I thought this experience mine. Are you responsible for this Other, hands?” The hands beckon the Man, and when they are close it unfurls its fingers and points.
The next morning, the man prepares his fineries as an offering. This one, not to the hands, as usual. His approach is wearisome and the weather seems to protest this connection. He approaches the Other, and to his surprise, the welcome is cordial. While they do not share a tongue, they share an understanding. The World is theirs, and with the help of The Crimson Hands, they prosper. His work brings him companionship, the unknown.
This courtship breeds community. Community thrives and expands their creation. The Man works with others and develops industry. Travel hastens, interaction instant. In this, his focus shifts. The Community thrives on their creations, and they work tirelessly to prosper. The Crimson Hands seem more distant now. The Man no longer seeks their guidance. All that he did, he did for them. All that he does, he does for his Community, his World.
He is ashen, and his work consumes him. The pleasures of the journey have waned, the focus too clear and his intentions too specific. Creation is intoxicating and cravings must be satiated. He forgets the oozing beginning, the wonder of the crabs, and the journey. The work of creation consumes, and the Man can only remember HIS hands. Decades roil into centuries. The Man, now Men, work incessantly. They, too, forget.
The Hands Return
At the tone…. 3 hours 21 minutes; coordinated universal time. They adhere to the same ritual. “It takes dedication!”, “There will be nothing you will be looking for in this world!”, “It’s gonna be a long long time” Those goals are Their future.
This is the World. What was once verdant and lush has been replaced; argent. The cobalt ripple of the Island is fantasy; lore. In conversation one might hear, “…and we used to sleep on the beach here, sleep overnight…”, but this is idle conversation that is quickly moved to the tasks at hand…of Hands. Things change. The billboards are all leering at the top of their poles and a cool wind blows. Things change.
A Man places two hands in a pool. The ripples of the water stoke a memory of Cobalt. He wrings his hands in the pool and washes away the pain and detritus of a difficult day. His next day will be prosperous, and he will continue to work toward the goal. Looking down among the dirt and ashes of industry he sees two hands. Stained red from toil, they have tales to tell. He reads the parallels and meridians, studies the topography, and finds remedy. Collectively the World pauses. Books, phones, and ledgers crash to the ground as people stop to read their hands. The Sun unfurls leaving two Crimson Hands in its stead.