“If that ain’t that the happiest looking phoenix I ever saw” – The Art Of Dion McGregor

November 30th, 2011 |  Published in Articles

Dion McGregor is samizdat. He is a treasured secret whose cover I’m about to blow, wikileaks-style. His art is not something people stumble on accidentally. I imagine most discoveries of Dion are much as mine was. A slightly drunken conversation with musicians, whose taste, like mine, covers some pretty out-there territory. Enough is mentioned of these crazy ‘60s recordings to intrigue and convince you to seek out copies. And then you hear them, and Dion’s voice is ingrained on your heart forever.

There’s not a great deal of information extant on Dion, but what you actually need to know is even less. He talked in his sleep, but at a volume and with a narrative fluency and complexity that sets him aside from the usual nocturnal mumbler. His somniloquies are fully-formed vignettes, with a structure, development and diegetic consistency that would shame the tightest Hollywood screenplay. Others around Dion became aware of this and one acquaintance, Michael Barr, dedicated many of his nights to recording Dion’s dreams as they happened. These recordings trickled out over three releases and four decades. The only one released during his lifetime was “The Dream World Of Dion Mcgregor (He Talks In His Sleep)”, put out in 1964 on Decca (!), and which has not had a reissue on any format since. A second collection, “Dion McGregor Dreams Again”, came out in Tzadik’s Lunatic Fringe series in 1999. It is testament to the uniqueness of Dion’s art that it should be released on labels occupying such opposite poles of the music industry. The most recent collection is “The Further Somniloquies of Dion McGregor”, issued by Torpor Vigil Industries in 2004. I personally still hope there is more to come from the hours of tape that must exist, with an optimism fuelled by the fact that a previously unreleased dream came out just this year on a compilation released by Awkwardcore Records. These recordings hold an abiding fascination for me and for those I know who have heard them, and it is why they are so fascinating that I wish to consider here.

The first and continuing reaction to hearing the dreams is laughter…they are hilarious. There’s humour to be found in the deadpan eye cast over tragedy, generally coupled with a bathetic understatement. “Well, that lady died rather uselessly” in the malfunctioning heater tragedy of “Swimming Pool”. And in the near OCD-like insistence of sticking rigidly within the logical boundaries of a situation, however ridiculous that situation may be (and it is always ridiculous). A starch dinner in “The Diet” that forbids any non-starch derived food…”how did that pork get in there?” A “Midget City” complete with midget chickens, tombstones and beds. Also, in the sheer delight in words and phonemes, possibly most evident in the names bestowed on his cast of characters. Dion McGregor Dreams AgainThe Harvey Whiffey of “16 Tickets to Schenectady” (“you look like a Harvey Whiffey”), or Gustaf Dumfuchsson, one of a number of similarly wonderfully named characters of assorted ethnicity that form the Benetton ad-like racial mix going on a balloon trip to the moon in “The Flight”. But a point I want to make strongly is that there is more at work in these recordings than the LULZ. Admittedly that’s a hard point to bear in mind when helpless with laughter but if it were that alone I would not constantly be revisiting them.

There is the hypnotic (literally hypnagogic) and instantly familiar timbre of the dreams. Dion’s voice has an arch, lilting, lisping quality, which is set against the constant hum of the Manhattan nighttime soundscape, car horns, air conditioning hum, the occasional siren rising to match his histrionics. Add to that the hiss and crackle of 40 plus year old vinyl which accompanies anyones’ listening of the first album. A number of these dreams were published in illustrated book form at the time of that record. While that shows that the narrative and descriptive elements of the dreams are strong enough to stand alone, for myself, as with the work of Ivor Cutler, the transcribed versions, shorn of the audio experience, lose more than half of the appeal.

That is most obviously so with Dion’s frequent excursions into glossolalia. “Wha Deboha Yo Yah?” is constructed entirely in some language of Dion’s invention, pitched somewhere vaguely between Africa and Scandanavia. What’s even more remarkable is the way it flows and builds exactly as a conversation would, with the same fluency and pace of Dion’s other dreams. His wordless vocalisations reach their apotheosis in THE SCREAM. This finishes most of the dreams, as some mock catharsis and as a bringing down of the curtain on the performance. On a number of occasions it is accompanied by other banging and crashing from within the room…I’m guessing Dion’s acting out of the dream wasn’t entirely verbal. The Dream World of Dion McGregorConnoisseurs of THE SCREAM rate that of “The Flight” particularly highly…but then the dreamer was in a hot air balloon headed for a fleet of storks at the time.

There is a pronounced camp gay tone to the dreams and their narration. This can be traced in the heightened tone and often frantic pace of the dreams, which start with a drama and proceed from there to crisis and crescendo, much like the Hollywood B pictures Dion loved. It is also there in the visceral disgust with female sexuality. Dion’s dream women are emasculators (“Little Willie Song”) or carnal predators (“All About Evelyn”…though destined to fail in their predatory aim – “look at that, it’s gone down, it’s wilted”). The eponymous anti-heroine of the schlock-Freudian parable “Vulvina” literally engulfs the narrator with her sexual organs…cue THE SCREAM. “Dion McGregor Dreams Again” is particularly rich in Dion’s sexually repulsed dreams, most of which were too explicit for the 1964 album. I’ll leave intrigued readers to find out for themselves what the acronym in “The C.L. Contest” from that album stands for.

There is also a general theatricality to the delivery. Dion “plays” different characters, sometimes within the same dream. In “Vulvina” he alternates between the fairground barker and the customer. The former role is one Dion seemed very comfortable with, often appearing as a rather uptight, hectoring, MC/ringmaster type. There is generally the sense of an audience, a mute other. Sometimes literally so, as in “Dear Uncle”, where the audience is both the intended recipient of the letter and the people present when engaged in the Sisyphean labour of writing it. Possibly also the daytime audience, of the recordist and even of me now, listening to these albums. The Further Somniloquies of Dion McGregorA couple of tracks, most notably “16 Tickets to Schenectady”, refer to the tapes running, the words being recorded, and such meta-narration brings you up short with the disconcerting feeling of being caught red-handed in Dion’s subsconcious.

Which brings me to the most fascinating aspect of these recordings…what exactly we’re listening to and its role as art. Despite the theatrical aspects, this is not a comedian delivering a routine. You are there in Dion’s subconscious, listening to its unmediated churning. Art could be defined as subconscious thought filtered through conscious reflection and creation, a process found to be unsatisfactory by so many artists who have tried to cut out the rational middle man and tunnel straight to the id, via drugs, hypnosis, chance and randomness. Dion McGregor had a head start on those guys, his subconscious spoke directly to us. And it spoke with such wit and style. There’s something else that strikes me every time I listen to Dion dream. After much analysis I know my own subconscious is a pretty grim place, and I’m sure that’s the case for many/most of us. Whereas that of Dion, despite recurrent multiple death fantasies involving swimming pool heaters, poisoned pastries or pitchforks raining from the skies, is an endlessly rewarding and fun place to hang out. And if you don’t agree, well, you know what to do…”Brown that banana, brown it, brown it. Crust it all over with sugar. Dip it in the sugar pot, dip it in the sugar pot. OK now, bend over and ram it up your ass.”

by Pete Coward

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November 30th, 2011 | by | Published in Articles