Features Regular Columns Guest Column: Franz Nicolay

Regular Columns: Guest Column: Franz Nicolay


Franz Nicolay is a recognizable face to those following independent music over the past decade. Sure, his mustachioed stage presence with The Hold Steady has brought him the most notoriety, but Nicolay’s body of work includes World/Inferno Friendship Society, Guignol, and guest spots with dozens of other artists. The multi-instrumentalist often performs with other groups, and has released two full-length solo records, and crossing numerous genre lines.

Scene Point Blank is proud to add the author of Complicated Gardening Techniques to our list of guest contributors, as Nicolay offers an absurdist take on the recent London riots.


"Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn."
– Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus"

"Fire and music! A kazoo with little sparklers."
- Joseph L. Mankiewicz, "All About Eve"

I'm not much given to topical material, but I was watching the London riots, and imagined an alternative history in which instead of mindless nihilists or opportunistic stuff-grabbers it was a gang of hitherto-aimless travelers who find each other and stumble upon an aesthetic of absurdist conceptual terrorism. You don't have to be fully conscious of what you're doing, or know how your plan ends, to achieve a little bit of greatness.

I know a few people, personally, who have written songs about anarchism, and smashing the capitalist state, and killing cops, and that's kid stuff. But to say "that's kid stuff" doesn't take away the anger, doesn't take away the urge to smash something. And anger about the absurdity of our life is even more hopeless and more nihilistic that anger with an idealistic purpose, even a misguided one. 

Philosopher Thomas Nagel ("On Absurdity") argues that a sense of absurdity is "one of the most human things about us," a manifestation of our ability to have a perspective on our own lives and their "conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality…by the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt." In this way a feeling of absurdity is a feeling of powerlessness; and the powerless, unless or until they have given up hope completely, see their routes to retaining dignity as both few and unutterably crucial.

So I started thinking, what kind of, for lack of a better word, anarchist, or terrorist (in the philosophical or existential sense), would I like to see? They'd have a little bit of the pig-for-president, LSD-in-the-water Yippie anarchic prankster. They'd have some inchoate knee-jerk anti-authoritarianism. But they'd also have the seriousness and the instinct to see that what disturbs people the most, and what sticks in their brains, is self-destruction in the name of something – the self-immolation of monks and fruit vendors, suicide bombers. And so that what would disturb even more, be even more memorable, is the deep-black irony of suicide both in protest of and in the name of absurdity, reflecting absurdity back – in the name of, ultimately, nothing; with a joke on its lips and across its chest. 


Had a spring fling in Flinn Springs
Made some surprisingly fast life decisions 
Got lost up in those rubble-strewn hills
Yellow flowers in the heating grill

Windmill farm on the Tecate Divide
Jacumba to the Devil's Canyon, roll the windows, stay inside
Rabbit shit on my heel, dry river idles the paddle wheel.

Into the Superstition Mountains
Across San Diego County
Had our own gandy-dancers' jamboree
On the Burlington to Santa Fe
Ocotillo to Rio Salado
To Dateland, AZ

Spent the gay nineties in London
Where we were passing out wolf tickets in abundance
Until we happened upon a shared mania for action
Organized only by an abstract dissatisfaction
We thought just to break the tedium
We'll create the rapture, with a sex doll and some helium
Ours to impress and destroy
Defend and annoy
These days, chaos for its own sake is at a premium

And so we hung from the Eiffel Tower
'Til the police came and cut the power
We were a spectacle, we were cannon fodder
We were overboard, we were underwater
It was our worst day, and our finest hour
As we hung from the Eiffel Tower

The Indian Ocean turned a tufted blue slate 
Under the first storm-clouds in three weeks
We ran an email scam with a Zanzibari bezique player
With antipodean charm
Watch your wallet! Sorry, false alarm.
Jack of diamonds, queen of spades; if your trick hits its disarray
We overstayed our welcome, sprayed "Fuck You" on the runway
When we ran away, & tried to memorize the Marseillaise 

For when we hung from the Eiffel Tower
'Til the police came and cut the power
We were a spectacle, we were cannon fodder
We were overboard, we were underwater
It was our worst day, and our finest hour
As we hung from the Eiffel Tower

They call a speed bump a prone policeman in Russia
But we took it literally.
There's no saxophones on Sunday in the South
We thought differently. Hey man, where's middle C?
Cure your melancholia instantly, get busy with infamy
It worked brilliantly. Please alert our families.

Until we hung from the Eiffel Tower
'Til the police came and cut the power
We were a spectacle, we were cannon fodder
We were overboard, we were underwater
It was our worst day, and our finest hour
As we hung from the Eiffel Tower

They asked, "Is this a laugh for you, or a serious battle?"
We said "When the monkey throws himself against the door
He doesn't care if it opens, as long as it rattles
And scares the children, and makes the parents gasp
We come not to demand, but to baffle
And if anyone asks you who or where we are
Just tell the cops we're following a star."

Art critics said they were conceptual terrorists
Hanging there with "Do the Struggle" spelled out in lights on their chests
It's a dance sensation. You swing to the east, then swing to the west. 
And you blame it all on the bulletproof vests
And you do it all for the dispossessed
It's an eloquent suggestion, an elegant protest
And it's a mess.

They hung themselves from the Eiffel Tower
'Til the police came and cut the power
They were a spectacle, they were cannon fodder
They were overboard, they were underwater
It was their worst day, and their finest hour
As they hung from the Eiffel Tower.


Words: Franz Nicolay


Posted on Aug. 31, 2011, 5:01 a.m.

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Guest Column: Franz Nicolay

Posted on Aug. 31, 2011, 5:01 a.m.

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