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In 1725, Irish satirist Jonathan Swift wrote to ally Alexander Pope, the English poet, that his ultimate aim was "to vex the world, rather than divert it." This he'd do particularly well four years later by publishing his notorious A Modest Proposal, a mock-serious pamphlet advocating the raising and/or selling of children for food as the best, most practical solution to Ireland's devastating famine and poverty: "I have been assured . . . that a young, healthy child well-nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled."
Naturally, some people applauded the irony—that the absurdist work was an attack on English oppression and exploitation. Others took it quite literally, or didn't appreciate the humor, and were wholly infuriated, labeling the author a savage misanthrope. Condemning Swift a century later, Victorian novelist and critic William Makepeace Thackeray latched onto the Proposal's shocking content, ignoring its intent. "[Swift] never fails to rage and curse," Thackeray admonished. "[He] enters the nursery with the tread and gaiety of an ogre."
Like Swift (to whom he's as easily compared as to the Fall's Mark E. Smith, the Frogs' brothers Flemion, the Butthole Surfers, and Pussy Galore, his logical musical forebears), Country Teasers frontman Ben Wallers has been both lauded as a satirical genius and pilloried as an offensive, malevolent monster. Over 13 years and umpteen caustic, unsanitized, no-fi albums (either with the Teasers or under his solo moniker, the Rebel) that slosh together skewed honky-tonk, maladroit post-punk, and outright noise, the 34-year-old Scotsman has been branded a racist and a misogynist, and hailed as a keen-witted rabble-rouser who twists and exaggerates the language of hatred for morally righteous purposes.
Wherefore the outrage? It may have to do with Wallers' most infamous lyric—"Women are the Germans of humor, said John Morgan/And I believe it is also true/That we are the Hitler of comedy/And everybody else is the Jew," from the band's 1996 disc, Satan Is Real Again or Feeling Good About Bad Thoughts. It also probably doesn't help that recent Teasers and Rebel releases have sported Wallers' "Spakenkreuz" logo, which is one tiny, inverted line away from being a swastika.
Where Swift explained his satirical motivations in poetry ("Malice never was his aim; he lashed the vice but spared the name," he wrote in his own "obituary," "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift"), Wallers clarifies his positions by responding to a handful of e-mailed questions (he avoids in-person or phone interviews) with five pages of both coherent and convoluted thoughts bashed out on a manual typewriter; they're replete with X'd-out words, scribbles, odd spellings, haphazard capitalizations, and a few stains (possibly coffee).
Of his "Spakenkreuz," he writes, "I don't like to say it except when I'm totally cornered by someone really angry with the swastika reference, but it is really an obvious anti-Nazi statement in the tradition of the symbolism battles which raged on the walls of 1930s Berlin between Nazis and anti-Nazis, wherein the latter disfigured the former's swastikas and vice versa, so and so on, until you had umbrellas and seagulls and all sorts of meaning-stripped insignia."
Certainly, Wallers has been reticent in the past to flash a neon "Irony" sign for listeners, preferring instead to let his words, offensive and in poor taste as they can often be, fly forth and be interpreted how they will. In some ways, it creates a gray area that turns the Teasers into something far more interesting and compelling than just another semicompetent noise-garage outfit. But on the Country Teasers' newest album, The Empire Strikes Back, he seems to be offering more clues and markers to his greater purpose. Over the carnival keyboards and bottleneck slide guitars of "White Patches," he sing-speaks in his gravelly tone, "Please tell it like it is, don't fuck around with words/When you fuck around with words, you make the situation worse."
Opener "Spiderman in the Flesh," meanwhile, segues from a twangy, old-timey country number to a cover of Pink Floyd's "In the Flesh" (from The Wall), with Wallers drawling the words of Roger Waters' fascism-enthralled antihero: "Are there any queers in the theatre tonight?/Get 'em up against the wall . . . And that one looks Jewish, and that one's a coon/Who let all this riff-raff into the room?/There's one smoking a joint, and another with spots/If I had my way, I'd have all of ya shot!" It's apparently the singer's way of saying, hey, you don't call foul on Floyd for being racist, so why not hold me to the same standard?
Confirms Wallers, "You think Roger hates coons and queers? That's a character in a song, you fucking lesbian jew paki chink! (Oops: Shouldn't have used 'lesbian,' it's not a pejorative . . . is that a clue I shouldn't have slipped out? Sharpie!)." And, he adds, "No one who talks to me maintains an opinion that I'm rac-o-sex-ist; just a bit confused maybe."
Still, some perfectly valid questions arise: What if Wallers is using double irony, or creating an extreme version of himself to mask a more subtle bigotry? Could he mean at least some of it? After all, isn't it possible that Swift had so much contempt for society that a small part of him didn't care if mankind ate its children? And what if the people who insist Wallers' music is so obviously pure satire—and scoff at the naysayers for "not getting it"—are doing so only so they can laugh along and rock out to the Country Teasers without guilt?
In the Red Records owner Larry Hardy—who's been putting out Teasers albums for the past five years—is convinced beyond a doubt that Wallers' aims are honorable. "It's not like a G.G. Allin record where he's saying all this hateful stuff and he might mean it," Hardy says. "This is more intellectually done. I wouldn't put out something along the lines of G.G. Allin, but this is not that. I knew right away that this clearly isn't a guy that means all of this."
Only Wallers knows his true intentions, and so, ironically enough, we're obliged to take him at face value when he writes that, like with his altered-swastika logo, he's trying to repurpose words of hate to more noble ends; to sidestep political correctness in attempting to spur honest dialogue about matters of race, gender, and class.
"I hope I'm doing that with lyrics. I'm very earnest and I want to serve society like [Lenny] Bruce, [Bill] Hicks, and [William] Burroughs."
And, he admits, he'd also like a slice of the artistic immortality which that crew, as well as Swift, has earned. "I cannot bear the idea of not existing in 50 years, nor even 200 years. I want people to come up with a theory which proves that my compositional approach is officially The Best for this period and should therefore be taught in the academies, the conservatories, you know. Plus, [I want] my funny lyrics published."