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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Harvey Milk captured the depressive pulse of blue-collar America

Illustration for article titled Harvey Milk captured the depressive pulse of blue-collar America

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Anytown, USA: A local economy that revolves around one central industry—such as hydraulic fracturing, oil production, freighting, coal mining, manufacturing, or farming—and leaves the town’s children with few options, many of whom will follow in their parents’ footsteps by destroying their bodies for a company that routinely sacrifices its workers in tribute to the bottom line. In these places, there isn’t much to do aside from working and getting wasted; meth is easier to score than weed; and the high occurrence of suicide reminds inhabitants that they can always choose death.


Harvey Milk’s 1996 LP, Courtesy And Good Will Toward Men, perfectly captures this depressive landscape, which is a bleak end product of the American Dream. A trio consisting of Creston Spiers, Stephen Tanner, and Paul Trudeau at the time of this recording, the band hails from Athens, Georgia. By mixing self-esteem-eroding walls of sludge with country so bleak that it makes Townes Van Zandt’s music seem cheerful, Courtesy And Good Will Toward Men envelops listeners in the despair that so often accompanies blue-collar labor.

Like many other towns in the South, cotton mills provided the economic foundation of Athens during the early 1800s. Because of its high number of factories, Athens was once called “the Manchester of the South.” A group of the town’s chosen sons also built one of the first railroad lines in Georgia, connecting Athens to Augusta, and, eventually, Atlanta.


Since its inception in a metal shed in Commerce, Georgia, Harvey Milk has reflected the blue-collar history of its home state. Throughout 1992 and ’93, the band released a handful of 7-inch singles (for meticulous documentation of these releases, see Henry Owings’ amazingly detailed Harvey Milk biography), relocated to nearby Athens, and recorded a full-length album, which didn’t receive a proper release until Hydra Head issued a “re-re-remastered version” of this self-titled LP in 2010.

In 1994, Harvey Milk teamed up with engineer Brooks Carter to record its first-released album, My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment Of What My Love Could Be, put out by Yesha that same year. Listening to this abstract record in its entirety is an exercise in self-abuse, and the railroad anthem that closes the LP, “All The Live Long Day,” is particularly crushing. Tremors of Tanner’s distorted bass and Trudeau’s floor tom wallop push the song, along with piercing sledgehammer (literally) percussion from Spiers: On periodic upbeats, he slams a sledge into a railroad tie. These metal-on-metal hits combine with the snail-paced rhythm section to capture the oppressive bleakness of life as a Georgian railroad worker during the 1800s—an illustration made even more intense when Spiers bellows, “I work hard all day / And this is what I do,” right before pounding the tie. The band has only played this song live a few times, including at Athens’ 40 Watt club in early 1994.

Just one year later, Harvey Milk recorded its magnum opus, Courtesy And Good Will Toward Men, originally released in ’96 by Reproductive Records and reissued by Relapse in 2007. The 10-minute opener, “Pinocchio’s Example,” functions as a microcosm of the album. Insistent, off-time keystrokes on an old piano morph into idiosyncratic noise rock that gathers speed before unraveling in a squall of Trudeau’s cymbal crashes and Spiers’ guitar distortion. The band repeats this anxiety-inducing formula until, nearly five minutes in, Tanner plays a bass riff that moves more slowly than Dr. Gonzo after he huffs ether through an American flag in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. With his ghastly moan, Spiers then guides Harvey Milk through a valley of toxic muck.


Finally, white noise segues into a section of minimal Americana. Sounding like an elderly coal miner with severe black lung, Spiers whispers, “Thin black paint / Shows a smile’s path / Rough hewn veins / Run dry maps,” over sparse guitar notes. The drone of an electric drill becomes an atmospheric tarp, covering the somber guitar tune. The coupling of this power-tool noise with Spiers’ catatonically depressed vocals speaks to the true promises America makes for its laborers—unrewarding work, sadness, and low wages.

The second track, “Brown Water,” emerges from the sparse ending of “Pinocchio’s Example” with a guitar progression that sounds like a lost intro to one of Vic Chesnutt’s lugubrious folk tunes. Trudeau gently joins, and Spiers’ altar-boy vocals waver. Then Harvey Milk opens the floodgates, unleashing a barrage of filth. Spiers switches to his unintelligible holler while hammering out a distortion-laced major scale. Twangy guitar notes bob their heads above this aural flood, only to get engulfed by the mudslide of Tanner’s bass and Trudeau’s drumming. Without any of the affectation that accompanies some bands’ transitions from quiet to loud, Harvey Milk deftly returns to the song’s delicate origin before deploying another town-destroying deluge of Southern sludge. This time around, the heavy section also includes a deconstructive guitar solo that carries the song to its end.


“Plastic Eggs” (an earlier version appears on Harvey Milk) begins with a 10-second burst of tom-heavy drumming that abruptly cuts out, as if it’s been playing on a TV and someone has switched the channel. A monolithic guitar riff that seethes with Khanate-esque nihilism becomes the center of the song. Long hours at a degrading and physically demanding job are conducive to acidic misanthropy and self-hatred. Countless laborers in Athens’ cotton mills doubtlessly experienced these feelings, which the mean-as-hell main riff of “Plastic Eggs” encapsulates. Combined with Trudeau and Tanner’s rhythmic abuse, as well as multiple layers of Spiers’ harrowing yells, this riff is a nexus void. “Plastic Eggs” is a droning, intentionally repetitive song, but the band throws in extra beats and oddball changes to keep the track’s serrated rancor intact.

The fourth cut on Courtesy And Good Will, “My Broken Heart Will Never Mend,” stutters like a dying tractor, with quarter-note escarpments and disjointed breaks that feature broken-winged guitar harmonies. The album then takes a turn with the fragile guitar track “I Feel Miserable,” and “The Lord’s Prayer,” a piano dirge that sounds like it’s performed by a drunken field hand in an empty bar.


Spiers seamlessly blends these songs with “Sunshine (No Sun) Into The Sun” by opening with whispered vocals and cheerless acoustic guitar. Then, 25 seconds in, Trudeau plays an explosive flam on his snare, clearing a swath for another mass of crawling sludge. Tanner’s rattling bass drills through the sonic canvas, and Spiers covers his rhythm section with antagonistic, sandpaper noise. In short: This is the soundtrack to a horrific farming accident.

As with virtually every other industry, cotton farming and production became increasingly industrialized throughout the 1900s. Factory workers frequently got injured by the machinery they operated, and this sense of the destructive potential of industrial labor drives “Go Back To France.” (The title is likely a sardonic poke at the political ideals often found in rural America.) Orchestrated and performed entirely by Creston Spiers, who was a percussion major at the University of Georgia, the song is a drum assault. It begins with steady kick drum hits and triangle tings, both of which quickly get surrounded by dry cymbal splashes and a whirlpool of polyrhythmic tom pounding. Roughly halfway through, this percussion temporarily pauses, opening the door for grating mechanical noise that, along with the oppressive drumming, continues throughout the rest of the song. When firing on all engines, the track evokes images of an assembly line of workers toiling at the altar of a conveyor belt.

“A Good Thing Gone” starts with the peaceful hum of a Hammond organ. Tanner then overpowers this ether with a bass line that reeks of early Melvins as Spiers warbles incoherently. A series of short samples marks a change back to the Hammond drone, creating an effect similar to that of the bizarre Super 8 clips and overdubs that populate Gummo. This song also provides an unsettling, though logical, segue into Harvey Milk’s dejected rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong.”

Spiers lightly strums an acoustic guitar and sings in a style that mixes equal parts Johnny Cash and Tom Waits, “I lit a thin green candle / to make you jealous of me / But the room just filled up with mosquitos / They heard that my body was free.” Taking Cohen’s vocal approach to a disturbing extreme, Spiers’ singing gradually becomes unhinged, transforming from a murmur into a moan. After telling the stories of a saint who “drowned himself in the pool” and a man with hypothermia, Spiers regresses into a wordless, suicidal wail.

Courtesy And Good Will Toward Men closes with “The Boy With Bosoms,” a song featuring shifts between old-time Appalachian melodies and industrial nastiness. Rather than shouting like Steve Brooks on Floor’s early material, which he does during many heavy sections on the album, Spiers croons with harmonic softness, as if singing a lullaby. Like a coal miner emerging into the light after an excruciating shift, “The Boy With Bosoms” brims with forlorn optimism: The worker finally gets to go home, but the next workday, and countless others exactly like it, loom. Although this song is oddly pretty, the caustic nihilism and depression that permeates the rest of the album hover above it like black smoke.


After a tour with godheadSilo during the same year Courtesy And Good Will Toward Men was released, Kyle Spence replaced Paul Trudeau. Propelled by Spence’s virtuosic drumming, Harvey Milk put out The Pleaser in 2000, a barnburner of classic rock. But, despite the undeniable verve in songs like “Down,” “Shame,” and “U.S. Force,” and a slew of blistering live performances, the band went on hiatus until 2005, when it recorded Special Wishes with original drummer Trudeau. The album follows a similar path as Courtesy And Good Will Toward Men by juxtaposing hopeless metal tracks like “I’ve Got A Love” and “Love Swing” with downer country ballads such as “Old Glory” and “Mother’s Day.”

In 2007, Spence once again took Trudeau’s seat, and the eminent Joe Preston joined Harvey Milk on guitar to write and record Life… The Best Game In Town—a mixture of The Pleaser-style rock ’n’ roll and Harvey Milk’s early downtempo attack. Feeding off renewed public interest, the band toured with Preston throughout ’08 and then, in ’09, returned to the trio of Spiers, Tanner, and Spence to record the melancholic maw that is A Small Turn Of Human Kindness.


Speaking with Steel For Brains in 2012, Spence discussed an uncertain future for Harvey Milk:

Maybe we’ll play shows again at some point. I’m not ruling that out. [Label] Hydra Head went out of business—not that that was unexpected or anything, but that’s not really helping us get off our ass and write a new record. I think it’s weird, because, after our last record, I’m not really sure why anybody expects there to be another one. I thought it was sort of a good way to end.


Unlike this statement, Harvey Milk’s legacy is unequivocal. Courtesy And Good Will Toward Men portrays some of the harshest aspects of American life while functioning as a profound illustration of what heavy music, in its smartest and most deliberate forms, can do.

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