Note: No, I didn't title it, but after the minorextremely
minor and extremely sillyfuror it caused in a certain Libertyville
Library, I feel a certain obligation to retain the title. The Lucky
Pierre Swearline will no longer be available after September 1,
2003, so don't bother calling. The Lucky
Pierre site, however, remains open.
One other thing. This is the version I received
for final proofing from the editor prior to publication. They must
have made a few adjustments before running it, especially in the
ending. This version has my original ending, which I consider a
little more pointed than the ending the Reader ran.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you're under 18 or thin-skinned
about bad words, skip this page.
recently, lamentably deceased Allen Walker Readetymologist,
lexicographer, and author of an unexpurgated compendium of 1920s
bathroom graffitionce said: "That anyone should pass
up the well-established colloquial words of the language and have
recourse to the Latin 'defecate,' 'urinate,' and 'have sexual intercourse,'
is indicative of grave mental health."
The local art collective Lucky Pierre is prone to
agreeand to create their own vault of vulgarity, last September
they launched the Lucky Pierre Swearline. The premise is simple:
Dial the toll-free local number, wait for the beep, then paint a
verbal blue streak for one minute. Swearline business cards bearing
the phone number, an invitation, and a large "F*CK YOU"
floating above a bland photo of a futon and rubber tree plant have
been left in bars, bathrooms, and hotel Bibles, coaxing impressive
blasphemies out of the bored, annoyed, and liquor-fueled. The hundreds
of messages left so far every possible swearing style, from scat-infatuated
adolescence to groin-pulling heavy breathing. Some are brief, some
epic, and some are in another language (one screed took several
days to identify
as Polish). Eventually, all will be burned to CD and placed in a
jukebox, allowing listeners to select tracks with such titles as
"Your Mama," "Shitting," and "Rape Your
The comic aspect of the project is apparent to the
Lucky Pierreans, but it's not their ultimate goal. "We don't
want it to be a one-liner," says group member Bill Talsma.
Known for performances that dissect media and culture, Lucky Pierre
usually interacts with a live crowd. The phone lineis a departure,
but it does address another Pierre obsession: documentation. A previous
project, "Lucky Pierre Speaks Urban Format Radio 2002"wherein
the collective and 40 friends spent a day listening to B-96 on headphones
and repeating everything they heardwas recorded on 24 CDs.
The Swearline is their first attempt to take art to the streets,
or at least the telephone, and gain perspective from people outside
the art crowd.
"We're definitely interested in trying to get
more out into the world," says member Tyler Myers. "so
this project has people who are not necessarily the ironic participant
who knows exactly the ins and outs of what they're participating
in. Not because we wish to get people in a trap and therefore make
fun of them, like Jackass. We don't want to do that at allbut
we would rather have people who are a little more genuine in their
Listening to .wav files of the calls on the Lucky
Pierre Web site (www.luckypierre.org)
it's apparent that while some contributors are in on the joke, others,
quite graphically, are not. One contributor offered the following
"Fucking fuck. Fuckin' fuckin' whore shit.
Cunt twat fucking shit asshole. Jesus Christ on a fuckin' metal
dildo fucking shit. God fucking dammit.Mother fuckin' queer suckin'
fuck shit fuck. Poo bellied shit head kabob fuckin' turd sack. Fuckin'
gonad gieyed ass eatin' butt eatin' fuck shit eatin' eat a fuckin'
bag of flyin' dicks you fuckin' whore fuck shit god dammit fuckin'
group. Jesus fuckin' Christ. Fuckin' last fuckin' cunt fuckin' ah
Historical research has been performed on swearing,
but not very thoroughly. While plenty of historians have preserved
the works of Virgil and Cicero, only a few bothered to jot down
the vulgar graffiti ofPompeii's brothels and bathhouses ("Cacator
cave malum, aut si contempseris, habeas Iovem iratum!" Trans.:
"Watch it, you that shits in this place! May you have Jove's
anger if you ignore this.") Even H. L. Mencken's wonderful
1919 book The American Language refers only to the "unutterable
four-letter words," and makes mention of nothing stronger than
"son of a bitch." Contemporary dirty word researchers
like Geoffrey Hughes and Jesse Sheidlowerauthors of Swearing:
A Social History of Foul
Language, Oaths, and Profanity in English and The F-Word,
respectivelyare largely dependent on literary records rather
than spoken word transcripts when discussing everyday cussing styles
of days gone by. Fortunately, all three could rely on less shy researchers
like Read and Vance Randolph.
Allowed more freedom as academics, Randolph and Read
researched and reported on contemporary swearing during the 20s
and 30s. Randolph is justifiably praised for his collection of Ozarkian
folkways in such books as Ozark Magic and Folklore, but is
probably better known for his anthologies of Ozarkian folktalestruthfully,
off-color jokeslike Pissing in the Snow. Through tales
of unfaithful wives, well-hung field hands, and incestuous couplings
("Why, brother, you're even better than Paw!" "Yup,
that's what Maw always says!"), Randolph not only faithfully
preserved his tale-tellers' speech patterns but also such curios
as Ozarkian slang for penises (Jemsons) and vaginas (twitchets).
He made no apologies for indelicacy. "Translate a vernacular
legend into the language of the
schools, and it is no longer a folktale," he wrote. "An
honest folklorist cannot substitute feces for shit,
or write copulate when his informant says fuck, diddle,
roger, or tread. Why should one employ such a noun
as penis if the narrator prefers pecker, horn,
Jemson, or tallywhacker?"
Read followed suit in the southwestern United States
in 1928, unblushingly collecting bathroom graffitias raw a
folk expression as can be hadfrom public restrooms during
his vacation. He printed the results in 1935 in a limited edition
as Lexical Evidence of Epigraphy in Western North America: A
Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary.
The book proved that the stiff-collared and spatted gents of the
10s and 20s didn't limit themselves to expletives of "thunderation"
and "by cracky." Witness, from 1928:
"Oh, cunt, oh, cunt, thou slimy Slit
All covered with hair, besmithered with shit
Like a polecat's ass thou smelleth bad
But oh cunt thou must be had
Grand Coulee State Park, WA"
Read explained the power of profanity in primitive
terms. Taboo, a word that has changed from meaning that which is
sacred to that which is vulgar, tacky, or gross, figures heavily
in his explanation. The bad words, as it were, are fallen angels.
Wrote Read: "These words cannot even be called 'sub-standard,'
because, although they may rarely or never be externalized, they
perform a function for speakers of standard English by serving as
scapegoats, ministering to the deep-rooted need for symbols of the
forbidden. They carnalize a certain emotion and thus leave the remainder
of the language free from it." He continues: "Obscenity
is an artificially created product and finds its strongest bulwark
in those 'right-minded people' who preserve its sanctity by the
hush in their own usage and by their training of the young.... When
one refrains from using the stigmatized words, one is not ignoring
the taboo but is actively abetting it."
In the artworld, taboos were actively preserved by
the more famous obscenity trials, although obscenity is generally
a misnomer when applied to art utilizing profanity, especially in
the case of works not designed to appeal to a prurient interest.
These are the pieces that can, in the words of Lenny Bruce, "tear
off a piece of ass with class." According to critics of such
art, the problem is not with the work, only the "bad"
words contained therein; words the thin-skinned claim have become
"meaningless," even as they seal their ears against them.
Yet, in literature, the most famous banned book battles seem oddly
overwrought. The naughtiest word shows up in Ulysses only
twice, and not until page 780. Holden Caulfield rants about the
"fuck yous" scrawled everywhere in the world, but Salinger
is able to plaster Catcher in the Rye with only six.
Contemporary readers may be forgiven for wondering
what all the sound and fury was about, especially now that one can
readily buy titles like Inga Muscio and Betty Dodson's Cunt:
A Declaration of Independence, Robert Lasner's For Fuck's
Sake, and Arthur Nersesian's The Fuck-Up. When the hubbub
abated and public mores liberalized, the dirty words lost their
power and became a few among many, mere bricks and mortar holding
together the larger structure. The society-shaking literary battles
appear extinct, though book bannings continue to spread scattershot
across the countrythe province of uptight PTAs and nervous
principals. (Note: And picky library trustees, as I've learned.)
In music, the historical record is just as spotty,
the freedom of many previous generations having been ruthlessly
squooshed by those infamous party poopers, the Victorians. In 1992
the Baltimore Consort recorded an album titled The Art of the
Bawdy Songperhaps the first classical music recording
requiring a parental warning stickerculled from early broadsides
of naughty odes and ballads. In these 17th- and 18th-century tunes,
ribald situations are not gigglingly alluded to, but rather raunchily
illustrated by choice words:
"My Lady's Coachman John, be'ng married to
her ladyship did here on't and to him thus she said.
'I never had a wench so handsome in my life,
so prithee therefore tell me how got you such a wife.'
John star'd her in the face, and Answer'd very blunt
'e'en as my Lord got you.' 'How's that?' 'Why by the cunt.'"
Later Victorian song collections carefully gelded
such songs of their naughty bits. Not a terribly respectful tribute
to their creators, including exceedingly able English classical
composers like Henry Purcell and John Blow.
Folklorist John Lomax encountered the same resistance
as he commended miles of songs and stories to shellac and acetate.
Among innumerable tame versions of "John Henry" and "Midnight
Special," Lomax attempted to preserve earthier American folk
songs, no matter how "crude or vulgar." He said so in
a letter mailed out to the nation's prisons, and was met with chilly
silence or exclamations of outrage from wardens who frowned at the
thought of using the U.S. mail to transport such verbiage. But one
song made the cut and was even recorded in 1936: Jimmie Strothers'
"Poontang Little, Poontang Small," Though bereft of excessive
profanity, with lyrics like "Put my dress above my knees/gonna
give my poontang to who I please/Oh my babe took my salty thing."
it garnered a "Delta" signification in the Library of
Congress Folk Archive card catalog, strangely identifying it as
As the 20th century progressed, the battle for free
profane speech was ghettoized to art and comedy. While Ulysses
and Lady Chatterley's Lover stand as the literary cases,
where actual spoken dirty words were concerned, comedy dominated.
But while Lenny Bruce actually dissected and discussed profanity
and free speechopening the door for George Carlin, Richard
Pryor, and Bill Hicksone winces to imagine Lenny pining away
in the pokey to make the world safe for Andrew "Dice"
Clay to yell "suck my cock, bitch" in a crowded theater.
In art, bad language seems to come and go as a way
to challenge thesquares, who would no doubt be offended if they
ever worked up the interest to attend a glossolalian event such
as Fiona Banner's Turner Prize-winning Arsewoman In Wonderland,
a transcription of the events and dialogue of a hardcore porn flick
covering a wall in large pink type. Artists who dabble in such unshocking
shockaroos are generally, understandably, denigrated for puerility;
the bad boys are rarely bad, at heart mewing pussycats dabbling
in tactics that offend only Rudy Giulani. But the Swearline rejects
this contrivance by inviting its callers to become their own scat-mongers.
So, with comedy and art accounted for, what about
that which gives spoken profanity its real power: sweaty, unreasoning,
vein-popping anger? "One thing that we found with this piece,"
says Talsma, is that "the majority of the calls that come in
are rooted in anger. People call up, and whether they know us or
not, they're directing their anger towards us." This anger
is well-represented by the many threats left on the Swearline, expressing
the callers' desire to hunt down this "Lucky Pierre,"
kill him, and sexually invade his ears and other orifices. Talsma
doesn't take it too seriously. "It's not an anger that would
ever be realized, it's a totally benign anger."
Reviewing the Swearline's transcripts, that benignity
is palpable. Swear words are often wielded clumsily and self-consciously,
or are anesthetized into dull repetitions of the big two"shit"
and "fuck"by most contributors. With a few exceptionssuch
as the friend of Talsma's sister who threatened to "shine his
fist up" and kick his "candy-ass," and the fellow
who violently critiqued the rubber plant and futon on the Swearline
business card there is little soul or power in the individual performances.
Yet, the aspect of encouraging the callers to participate,
produce, and carefully choose their fighting words suggests an interesting
question: Can one deftly wield profanity? If we have comedians to
make us laugh and tragedians to make us cry, why are there no professional
"angerdians," those who craft pique and spleen into sculptures
of verbal flame? The Asiatic style of speech-making incorporates
bombast and vitriol, yet, even among demagogues, few noteworthy
speeches featuring profanity come to mind. We have generations of
"angry" young writers, directors, artists, and poets,
yet few create thoroughly profane works.
Swearing sound sculptures are possible, though largely
relegated to the underground recording market and mostly appreciated
for their cruelly comedic aspects. For potency, phone pranks are
a good place to start, though one has to burrow through much witlessness
before discovering the sadistically skin-peeling original: the Tube
Bar Tapes. Sometime in the mid-70s, two pranksters known as the
Bum Bar Bastards telephonically trolled New Jersey and New York
bars for victims, mercilessly pranking then taunting the callees
until they exploded. The initial pranks were mildly amusing, usually
involving a request for the bar owner to page Bill Loney or Hugh
Doosh. Then the Bastards stumbled across Louis "Red" Deutsch,
owner of the Tube Bar in Jersey City.
Red was a tough guyhard as a chunk of marble.
If there's such a thing as a reverse castrati, Red was it, his voice
a gravelly echo of an older, meaner time. Red was not amused when
he caught on (though the number of pages he unwittingly made for
Sal Lami and Al Caholic before he did so was remarkable). Sounding
like a mob enforcer prepared to chisel out a stool pigeon's teeth,
Red's oaths allow no doubts as to the validity of his fury:
"Why you lousy motherfucker cocksucker, you'd
fuck your own mother for a nickel, you sonovabitch, you're a motherfucker
and a cocksucker..."
"Why don't you come down, you motherfucker
cocksucker!?! I'll open your belly up and show you all the black
stuff you got in there! You motherfucker cocksucker! You haven't
got the nerve to come down, you sonuvabitch! Be down you motherfucker!
Fuck you and your mother, you sonuvabitch!"
Later, on the west coast, young punks Eddie Lee Sausage
and Mitchell D. captured the squalid and hellish lives of Pete and
Ray, their nigh-psychotic, alcoholic neighbors, who regularly lit
and lunged into one another in the apartment next door. First amusing,
then frightening, the "Shut Up, Little Man!" recordings
gradually become hypnotic in their blistering effect and inventively
hateful bile. We all learned the grammatical mechanics of "shit!"
when Dad first smashed his finger with a hammer in front of us,
but whereof did the eternally lubed Ray develop the rondolet pattern
"If you wanna talk to me, then shut your fuckin'
mouth! Shut your fucking mouth, you cocksucker! You goddamned piece
of fucking shit! Shut your fucking mouth! God damned asshole motherfucker!
You ain't a human being, you're a fucking dog, and I despise you!
I despise any fucking dog like you!"
The unwitting collaboration of experimental music
group Negativland and DJ Casey Kasema brilliant intercutting
of Casey Kasem spewing boiling acid at incompetent underlings with
a karaoke version of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking
For"is another masterpiece of anger. If the sound of
thunder is measured by the silence before it, Kasem's ordinarily
mealy voice sounds like the wrath of God whenever he veers from
his usual script:
"Okay, I want a goddamned concerted effort
to come out of a record that isn't an up-tempo record every time
I do a goddamned death dedication! This is the last goddamned time,
I want somebody to use his fucking brains to not come out of a goddamned
record that is, uh, that's up-tempo and I've gotta talk about a
fucking dog dying!"
Here the guard is down, the adrenaline up, andpunctuated
by the barks and snarls of dogsKasem's smarmy nice-guy voice
becomes a weapon. The difference between these and the Swearline,
of course, is the setup. Caught at their worst or provoked to explosion,
the exploitation of Pete, Ray, Casey, and Red may allow us to admire
their "performances," but doesn't let us strictly call
it art. Lucky Pierre, on the other hand, has an appreciation of
and interest in humiliation, but the choice to be exploited is left
up to the callers. In a funny way, Lucky Pierre might be said to
be putting smut back into the mouths of the people, subverting the
taboo of profanity by inviting the callers to become their own scat-mongers.
"On a cultural level," says Talsma, "it's
not transgressive to swear and it's not transgressive to invite
that kind of behavior, but what might be transgressive is on the
psychological end and the cultural end of what people are saying.
What are they choosing to reveal?"
Certainly, nothing complimentary. The Swearline contains
some amusingly profane drum solos, ala Pete, Ray, and Red, but many
callers evince a dreary sameness, reflective of the dull patterns
of invective learned from too many Tarantino flicks. For most, it
says much about theirand ourcultural prejudices when
the absolute worst thing they can imagine calling someone is a faggot
or a cunt.
In art, and in free speech in general, the fight for
the right to profanity is annoying for even the most ardent advocate.
It's a skirmish in the larger war, word taboos inflaming the battles
to ridiculous heights. Deliciously, both sides fight because neither
wants the words to diminish in power. Some argue that there's no
defense for an artwork that is purely obscenities; others will defend
to the death Lucky Pierre's right to record hours of profane boozehound
babble. But the Swearline points out another danger: the assumption
that the First Amendment is solely the toy of the art crowd.
Most free speech fights for so-called provocational
art seem perfunctory at this pointslapfights between prefab
rebel artists and uptight politicos. The war, however, is not just
about the offending artist's right to express him or herself, it
is to remind the general American populace thatin the wake
of Ari Fleischer's post-September 11 comment that Americans "need
to watch what they say, watch what they do"they too enjoy
the right to speak freely. So why do so few of them say anything
of controversy or consequence? If nothing else, through the Swearline,
Lucky Pierre has made the loud and clear point that most people
are ready to scream the most forbidden words and thoughts only on
condition of anonymity.
Originally published in the Chicago
®2003 Dan Kelly
Contact Mr. Kelly