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Pylon guitarist Randy Bewley, R.I.P.

If you are reading this and thinking "Who is Pylon?" and "Who is Randy Bewley?", then you can count yourself in a large majority of rock music fans; for better or worse, the legacy of Athens, GA stalwarts Pylon is forever overshadowed by the twin titans of R.E.M. and The B-52's, two contemporaries who most definitely did not follow Pylon's general ethos of quitting while they were ahead.  As it is, there is scant information about Pylon: until last year's CD re-issue of their seminal 1980 album Gyrate (released on James Murphy's DFA imprint), none of their music was in print, and the band members were only marginally involved in music, with the occasional reunion gig that rarely made it outside of their native Georgia.

 

Pylon's particular brand of stripped-down dance-rock often gets tagged as "minimalist", which in my opinion does them a grave disservice; mostly because their joyously and almost naïvely exuberant mayhem is devoid of the dour and mirthless formalism often insinuated with the m-word.  Okay, sure, they were all art students when they formed in 1978 at the University of Georgia, and none of them knew how to play their instruments, and their musical compositions were often filled with certain notions of intentionally limiting structure.  But none of their art-school constrictions could contain the boundless enthusiasm that was at the heart of their music, a perfect synthesis of four young people catching on to punk culture in such a distant and removed manner that it couldn't help but work its way out in the most idiosynchratic way possible.  The three instrumentalists (Bewley, drummer Curtis Crowe, and bassist Michael Lachowski), upon forming the band, were initially going to forego a vocalist entirely and just use instructional recordings they found lying around as vocal accompaniment.  That is, until they stumbled upon Vanessa Briscoe, a doe-eyed ingenue whose complete lack of musical know-how somehow made her the absolute perfect fit, her voice shifting effortlessly from satanic howl to compliant coo to angelic whisper in a way that a more career-focused rock chick would never allow.  Pylon often get thrown on the heap with other early 80's "angular" bands (like Gang Of Four, Wire, Mission Of Burma, etc.) of their day, but their sound was truly unique and powerful.

The most aggravating thing about Pylon is the manner in which they quit whilst being ahead: on the verge of a national tour opening for U2, the band just kind of disintegrated with a shrug.  The official word from the band, the line that they have repeated to anyone who has inquired since their demise, is that "we stopped when the band had ceased being fun".  Which is frustrating until you consider that the "fun" that they as a band cherished was indeed so integral to their sound, and to a listener's enjoyment of the band.  Of course, one consequence of the timing of their split-up is that they will never have the legacy of their contemporaries; which is why some of their best music remains out of print, like what is arguably their greatest song, "Crazy" (from 1983's Chomp LP).  Like pretty much anyone whose musical coming-of-age occurred post-1985, I heard of Pylon through R.E.M.'s cover of "Crazy" off of the Dead Letter Office rarities comp; upon a first listen to D.L.O., I pegged "Crazy" as my new favorite R.E.M. song until I read the liner notes (R.E.M.'s penchant for recording covers of obscure bands rivals Metallica, and it's safe to say that Pylon would have benifited greatly had they reunited to jam onstage to "Crazy" along with R.E.M. the way that, say, Diamond Head was able to run through "Am I Evil" with Metallica).


A close listen to "Crazy" reveals not only what an amazingly prescient band Pylon was, but also what a remarkably ahead-of-his-time guitarist Bewley was.  Neat and clean when his contemporaries were messy and incoherent, his playing on "Crazy" mixes wistful mirror-ball prom slow dance somberness with clipped crisp chords, and the net effect is somehow both thousand-yard-stare serious and life-affirmingly gorgeous.  There used to be a video one could find on the web of the original Pylon, pre-reunions, playing their final show in December of 1983.  When they broke into "Crazy", it was honestly one of the most awesome rock and roll moments I have ever seen: Lachowski and Bewley criss-cross the stage in dancing oblivion, while Vanessa, in between stanzas, twirls in a circle in her floral dress, as if nothing in the world is more meaningful and profound than dancing around with her friends on this stage playing the single greatest song the world has ever known.  It's shocking that a band this on the money would be on the verge of giving up because the band was "no longer fun", but they definitely went out on a high note.

 Pylon taught fellow Athen-ites R.E.M. how to rock in an art-school way while still staying true to their Southern roots, but a vocalist like Michael Stipe was always too mannered and affected, and Peter Buck was too much of a record store geek in his six-string pilfering.  Pylon were affectless and feckless, and you can listen to their music over and over and never get a clue as to where they are getting it all from.  There really weren't any forebearers to Pylon's music, only future imitators.  Bewley's role is crucial in the post-punk landscape: few guitarists of his time eschewed the stylistic trappings of the lead guitarist as shrewdly as Bewley.  There really is never a moment on a Pylon track where he just cuts loose-- every second of every song, the bass and guitar are playing an intricate cat and mouse game where economy is king and labor is divided equally.  The true democracy of the band's sound is one that is a rarity in rock music then and now: maybe in the utilitarian growl of The Jesus Lizard; perhaps in the all-the-parts-clicking-together musical thrift of The Strokes.  But ultimately, the music of Pylon exists on its own little branch of rock n' roll's family tree-- the band are more well-known by the people who they associated with, or were covered by, than who are their actual musical brethren.

 

No discussion of Pylon is complete without bemoaning how the band never got their due, and one is supposed to either a) see this as evidence that awesomeness in and of itself is never rewarded, and/or b) that the band are exemplars of a certain indie ideal for never having cashed in and gone for the brass ring.  Personally I have no opinion on the matter other than I wish that I could have seen them in their prime, and I wish that all of their music was still in print.  That said, it's worth noting that the band's more low-key reunion phase lasted considerably longer than its initial run from 1979-83; upon re-forming in 1989, they toured with R.E.M. and The B-52's, they put out a new album (1990's way under-rated and oft-maligned Chain, on Sky Records)... and then promptly broke up again, only to re-form in fits and starts a few times in the ensuing two decades.  The most recent stretch, from 2004 to the present, was instigated by Bewley, and resulted in a few shows here and there (frustratingly, none reached Boston!).  A quick Youtube search will show that the band still had it during these reunions, although gone are the days when they were on the cusp of opening up a big stadium tour.  Still, Bewley's untimely demise is made all the more sad when you consider that the band has been more active lately than they had been in decades.

In any case, in the words of Lackwoski in his e-mail to the Pylon faithful announcing Bewley's passing: "We love Randy".  Rest in peace, and may your music live on.

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