Sunday, September 25, 2022

"I'm Not Trying to Be Smug Here:" Words for Anton Fier

Photo by Rick McGinnis

In many ways, Anton Fier – who passed away last week at the age of 66 – died years ago.

Long before social media gave the world a platform for self-aggrandizing, Anton packed up his music box and split for parts unknown without a single word announcing his intentions. The year was 1996, and he had just released Dead Inside – one of the darkest albums ever committed to disk – with his long-running project, The Golden Palominos. Largely created in collaboration with spoken word artist Nicole Blackman (perhaps best known for her bullet-between-the-eyes work with KMFDM), Dead Inside was bleak, distressing and fearless. (Kidnapping, murder and infanticide were among its primary themes.) Even in a post-Cobain musical landscape accustomed to depression set to sound, Dead Inside was too much for too many. (Cheekily, I once put it on for a ladyfriend who had basically been my high school’s answer to Sylvia Plath. She politely asked that I turn it off after the first song.) Naturally, I absolutely adored the thing – despite the fact that I’ve only been able to sit through it thrice in the last 26 years.

As career suicides go, Dead Inside is a masterstroke. From 1980 to 1996, Anton had been everywhere as one of Alternative music’s most expressive and versatile drummers. His extraordinary talents made their first major appearance on The Feelies’ amazing 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms. Over the ensuing decade and a half, his personal discography blossomed to include standout work with Pere Ubu, The Lounge Lizards, SWANS and Bob Mould, among others. Under his own steam, he led The Golden Palominos – a revolving who’s who of underground music elites – through a series of captivating albums (with 1983’s eponymous debut, 1985’s Visions Of Excess and 1994’s Pure being my personal favorites). Critics and adventurous music fans couldn’t get enough of the guy – but then Dead Inside shook the Cult of Fier into a stunned silence. Years went by without a peep from him.

Where did Anton Fier go? And why? Why was Dead Inside presumably his final word? In early 2005, I decided to find out.

Driving down Sunset Blvd. one day, I came up with the idea to write a book called Albums that (Should’ve) Changed the World – a more grandiose title than, say, Albums that Really Deserve a Second Listen. Within seconds of coming up with the title, I decided that Dead Inside would be one of the releases I’d write about. At the time, I viewed Myspace – still primitive in those days – as a passing fad not worthy of much attention. So, I started my journey the old-fashioned journalist’s way – by connecting the dots through phonebooks, legwork and organic networking. I was soon in touch with various Palominos and Pere Ubu types, hoping to gain a glimpse into Anton’s working process and personality. Before long, a common thread surfaced: Many spoke highly of their working relationship with Anton, but they cautioned that my attempts to get to the heart of the matter directly with the man himself – who could be quite a cagey fellow at times, it seemed – would very likely lead to a brick wall. Additionally, it appeared that nobody had heard from him in years. These were tantalizing circumstances for a journalist, and finding Fier became a fixation for me.

I tracked down and hit up more past Palominos. None of them seemed to know where Anton’s feet had landed. I left a few messages at the NYC bar Tonic (RIP) after a SWAN tipped me off that Anton was last seen working there. Nothing. Shortly after my Eddie And The Cruisers-style search for the man hit its ninth month, I finally came across a presumably old email address for him in the liner notes to Tzadik's reissue of his solo album Dreamspeed after unexpectedly finding it at Amoeba Hollywood one day. I sent him an email but didn’t expect much. Amazingly, he wrote back two days later. Here’s an excerpt:

“While I appreciate what you're trying to do, I'm just not sure that talking about the music or the past holds much interest for me. I'm not trying to be smug here, but outside of technical details, I'm not sure what information I can offer you that would be relevant – relevant in the sense that it sheds light on the work. The work is the work, created by the people who created it, and it speaks for itself.”

The journalist in me hated reading those words, but the creator/musician in me understood and respected the hell out of them. During a conversation I had with him a few years back, the late Andy Gill of Gang of Four cautioned that artists could too easily end up being “guilty of trying to be [their] own reviewers and trying to really spell out what [they] think [the work] is supposed to say,” adding that such practices “can take away some of the magic in things by over-talking them.” Creators are in the business of creating; in a perfect world, that would be enough. Unfortunately, publicity and promotion don’t work that way, and this often leads to otherwise solitary people being bugged by, well, people like me. Having existed on both sides of the fence over the years, I tend to favor Anton’s go-away-kid-you-bother-me approach to public relations over the time I need to take away from DOING things to discuss things I’ve already DONE. A necessary evil is still evil, and I found Anton’s reluctance to give away too much a breath of fresh air. And in a modern world where photos of lunches provide midday entertainment for millions, Anton accomplished the great feat of a public death without actually dying. Brilliant and admirable.

Now Anton IS dead, and we’re left with his work to tell the tale. Thankfully, that tale is an extraordinary one. As a young drummer growing up in New Jersey (The Feelies’ headquarters), I learned a lot about finesse by listening to Crazy Rhythms – especially via the gradual tom buildup of “Loveless Love” and the tasteful-yet-powerful timekeeping genius of “Moscow Nights.” I’ll also state without reservation that White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity – largely viewed as SWANS’ return to form following the commercially driven misstep of 1989’s The Burning World – would not have been the album it was without Anton’s presence. And then there’s Pere Ubu’s Song Of The Bailing Man. And Bob Mould’s Black Sheets Of Rain. As far as I’m concerned, these are ANTON’s records. He was not a sideman; he was the engine.

On a personal note, Anton’s death is another nagging reminder that my Albums book – long delayed by nearly two decades’ worth of marriage, parenthood, divorce, car accidents, world travel and actual paid work – is still unfinished. I’d like to think that if Anton had lived long enough to read the final product, he would have enjoyed my investigation and interpretation of Dead Inside.

Although Anton briefly resurfaced about a decade ago with another Golden Palominos record (this time a collaboration with Drivin N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney) and a couple of surprise live shows, he largely maintained his elusiveness until the very end. No official cause of death has been announced, and I’d be surprised if one ever comes to light. (There are online rumors, of course. I will neither share nor validate the more prevalent ones here except to say that I hope Anton left this world feeling a sense of personal dignity.) At the end of the day, Anton did his job by leaving us plenty of great music to mull over – and then staying out of the way of his own creations.

“The magic in things,” as Andy Gill would say, remains intact.

You were right, Anton. Your work does speak for itself. And it will always say – and mean – a hell of a lot.