To Ogre, With Love
The desperation of the Reagan era, the darkness of industrial music and one devoted teenage fan: a Skinny Puppy-smitten girl survived through her writing
BY Brian Joseph Davis
Photograph from Go Ask Ogre (Process Books, 2005)
14 February 1987
I’m Jolene. I’m 17. I’m a senior at an extremely boring school. It’s packed full of heavy metalers. Do you like heavy metalers? Sorry to say but I don’t get along with them too well. I hate this school.... My mother hates me. I hate hate.... —from Go Ask Ogre: Letters from a Deathrock Cutter by Jolene Siana
Some teens reach out to God. Whatever. Other teens reach out to Canadian musicians notorious for blood-drenched performances set to relentless drum-machine din.
At a 2001 concert, 36-year-old Los Angeles artist Jolene Siana ran into a friend she had not spoken to in nearly a decade. It was Nivek Ogre, vocalist of Vancouver industrial band Skinny Puppy. “I still have your letters,” Ogre said to her. He was talking about the dozens of notes and journals Siana had sent him when she was 17, poor and living in Toledo, Ohio, with her abusive, single mother. As Siana relates the story, the idea grew in her mind that the letters could be published. Ogre agreed with the idea and gave the letters back.
After discovering the music of Skinny Puppy, Siana wrote to the address on those albums. Spanning 1987 to 1991, these were not simply fan letters, but a comprehensive and factual diary of her daily existence and struggles with thoughts of suicide, cutting and debilitating self-doubt. To her amazement, the man who sang like broken glass wrote back several times, telling her that her letters were different and that even though he would probably not write back, she should keep writing him—that it would help her maintain her wits. Now, almost 15 years after they were penned, the collected letters have been published, complete with reproductions of Siana’s illuminated, girly and grim pages, as Go Ask Ogre (Process Books). Ogre asked that his letters to her not be reproduced.
Long after receiving the letters back, Siana was “still fascinated that he did that.” When I spoke to her about Ogre, she said, “Even though at the time he was encouraging, I didn’t really know him that well. I was so touched that holding on to my letters was so important to him.”
The dozens of letters show an unmistakably teenage voice asking teenage things, but also an intelligent, jarringly lucid evocation of a journey through post-prosperous America and a struggle to find out what it means to be alive. Heartbreaking and charming, it is Albert Camus’ The Stranger and Nick Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause connected with a palimpsest of black lipstick. And perhaps Ogre-as-Godot as well. While the letters are addressed to him, his presence is spare. Save for several letters, Ogre and Siana communicated directly only when they would meet up at Skinny Puppy concerts. When I ask if she was tempted to add in more, she answers, “I didn’t know at first if I was going to add anecdotal writing to elaborate the letters, but I ended up preferring them as what they are. Something raw. There’s a purity to that teen voice. To keep that was important to me.”
The connection between Siana and Ogre went beyond the usual bonds of fan and performer. Larger cultural and economic forces had placed the two at conversation distance as the economic malaise of the 1970s was answered in the 1980s by the Reagan administration with the worst possible solutions. Deregulation of industry, the stripping of union protection and the gutting of social services killed entire cities in the Midwest, giving rise to the term “rustbelt” to describe a once prosperous region experiencing the greatest economic shrinkage since the Great Depression.
For many teenagers who lived there, industrial dance music was the clanking soundtrack to that process. While industrial music was a creature born of a European tradition—from the mid-20th-century electronic compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen to the wall of feedback of confrontational performance artists Throbbing Gristle—and a response art to the calamities of that continent, it was absorbed and codified, mostly, by Great Lakes area youth of North America during the Reagan/Bush era. Here, it would meet up with other forms of music made from broken things: hip hop, techno, the fringes of metal. It was an intuitive connection made as a reaction to the new bad days by putting on the clothes of someone else’s old bad days. It was not without precedent or after-effect.
As early as the mid-1970s, a dissonant, hugely influential music scene formed in Siana’s home state of Ohio, centred around the band Pere Ubu. Of the band, critic Greil Marcus wrote, “Pere Ubu boards a train that passes through a modern nation as if it were an ancient land, all ruin and portent, prophecy and decay. Thus the terrain makes the familiar terrain strange, unseen—new.” Taking their cues from both the avant-garde (their name from Alfred Jarry’s infamous play Ubu Roi) and the lost soul garage-howl of Michigan’s the Stooges, Pere Ubu’s early albums are claustrophobic suites of tense bass, non sequitur pleas and musique concrete of factories and things breaking. A night out in post-industrial Cleveland made more sense if you evoked between-the-wars Europe as your guide. Especially if you were stuck in the place Pere Ubu described where: “Image, object, & illusion / go down to the corner / where none of the faces fit a human form, / where nothing I see there isn’t deformed….”
By Siana’s time, there were no more nights out to check the fresh apocalyptic scene. It was old already. Just road trips to the last record stores, and bedroom conclaves of teens wanting to reinvent themselves as Maldoror, the titular monster in author Lautréamont’s fin de siècle book (a text that caused a row between Siana and her mother). And the struggle to not get kicked out of art school for lack of funds.
That avant-garde ideas ended up in the rustbelt—where teenagers abridged them—was not the death of those ideas, but the start of their vitality. The surface aesthetic of the music was one of transgression, dirt and broken things; art overly romantic and in large doses, not good. Underneath though, was an urge and tactic of radical idealism. A belief that one could make sense of the vortex of exiting economies and influx of new, dread filled words: VX gas, carcinogenic, voodoo economics, smart bomb, televangelist—’80s words. For musicians to sample and chant these phrases was to turn fragment into a woven statement, like making one’s own television network.
Isolated in a turned-off part of America, Siana created her own closed network with Ogre through a public diary, that literary form recovered by female writers of the early 20th century, notably Anaïs Nin, whose unmediated style looms large over Go Ask Ogre and was important to Siana. “I’ve always been obsessed with diary literature and documentation, so of course Nin’s diaries, things so personal and expressing so much but not written for more than a few people, have always been wonderful to me.” Siana’s next project is also diary-based, however “a little more fictionalized,” she laughs.
Everything Siana writes in Go Ask Ogre is a pop secret, a secret spoken privately to a public figure. It becomes a contract similar to what Elizabeth Podnieks writes in her book Daily Modernism about the diary as a “contractual genre.” The form of the diary announces to the reader that they are entering a private document. By testing the boundaries of that contract, Siana was able to make her world and condition real and by making it real, overcome it.
The title is a take on the drug shock classic Go Ask Alice but Go Ask Ogre’s narrative ends, not on Pere Ubu’s train but on a Greyhound bus, as Siana leaves home and diary behind on her way to art school. She has become a better, more realistic narrator than Alice’s Anonymous. Seemingly, drugs and leaving home have actually helped her, and her art and collected cultural referents become means of change, not mere expression. When I ask her about her feelings after publishing the letters, Siana says, “Whatever I was going through, I’m glad I wrote the letters. Even the stuff that I look at now and say, ‘I mailed that?’”