(In homage to the passing of Lee Perry, here’s an unpublished essay I originally wrote for the Believer about football, head injuries, MKULTRA, video “hash,” Roger Staubach, MNF, Burroughs, 1200 lb. videotape machines, digital delay, and dub reggae. Fun fact, I wrote parts of it while suffering from a concussion myself.)
Calling the meek and the ‘umble
Welcome to Blackboard Jungle
So don’t you fumble
Just be ‘umble-umble-mble.
-Introductory incant to “Black Panta” from the Upsetters’ 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle
Shadowing the past few campaigns of the National Football League like a corner in man-to-man coverage has been the medical revelation of irreparable brain damage caused by merely playing the game. With every post-game recap, there seemed to follow even more news on helmet-to-helmet hits, new scientific studies revealing the depths of such trauma, all of it lingering over the game like post-concussion symptoms. Commentary last year alone ranged from 60 Minutes profiles to Time (deflated pigskin cover on its 2009 story: “The Most Dangerous Game”) to the New Yorker, where Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Offensive Play” discussed the brown tau and beta-amyloid stains that appear on damaged players’ brains from too many head-on collisions. He noted that NFL players suffered a five times higher than average diagnoses of “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease” after their playing years were behind them, adding a lineman’s description of a standard downfield drive: “Every play, collision, collision, collision…literally, these white explosions –boom, boom, boom– lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.”
A few issues on, Gladwell returns to the gridiron as it pertains to social drinking: “Put a stressed-out drinker in front of an exciting football game and he’ll forget his troubles…Drinking relaxes the man watching football because the game is front and center, and alcohol makes every secondary consideration fade away.” But what if the televised game of football were in fact the libation, the relaxer, the drug that dissolves every woe? Could the clash of helmet to helmet, battering for yardage each and every down somehow affect viewers’ heads from the comfort of their own couches? Could the very act of watching football do something to the fan at home?
“By throwing stones to stones I start to hear sounds.”
The name of Rainford Hugh Perry has gone through countless permutations, each echoing the man who bears it: Lee Perry, Little Perry, Scratch, The Upsetter, Jah Lion, Super Ape, Pipecock Jackxon. The miscreant scamp who danced the chicken at dancehalls, recorded the most crucial early Bob Marley sides, and grew to be the dub don of the decade, learned his trade the hard way. Under the heat of the tropical sun doing back-breaking construction work out at Jamaica’s westernmost tip of Negril, Perry began to receive “miracle gifts” and “blessings from a God,” as recounted to author Dave Katz in his biography, People Funny Boy: “When the stones clash, I hear the thunder clash, and I hear lightning flash, and I hear words…these words send me to Kingston.”
A record peddler for the soundsystems of Sir Coxsonne Dodd and Joe Gibbs upon his arrival to Jamaica’s capital, when Perry started producing his own sides, he drew on the natural reverb and echo that used to soundtrack the tedious rhythmic plod of manual labor in the countryside and utilized it in his own work. As Scratch began to section off drum hits and bass throbs and throw them down an aural canyon, he heard anew those stones clashing like thunder and lightning, boom boom boom, the natural reverb of hits and collisions occurring in the studio space. Whether he was recording homages to Clint Eastwood (on 1970’s Eastwood Rides Again album) or the Colonel’s secret recipe (see “Kentucky Skank” from Double Seven), Perry’s booms and rumble have informed everyone from Bob to the Beastie Boys and has underpinned reggae music for decades. With such sounds echoing through his skull, Perry enacted it to reverberate through listeners’ heads as well, and via Bob Marley and the Wailers, made reggae and dub music the gateway drug of choice for dorms and island resorts the world over.
Senator Richard SCHWEIKER. Subproject 54, MKULTRA, which involved examination of techniques to cause brain concussions and amnesia by using weapons or sound waves to strike individuals without giving and without leaving any clear physical marks. Someone dubbed it “perfect concussion” — maybe that was poetic license on the part of our staff rather than your poets over there. I wonder if you could just tell us what brain concussion experiments were about?
Admiral Stansfield TURNER. This project, No. 54, was canceled, and never carried out.
Senator SCHWEIKER. Well, I do believe the first year of the project in 1955 was carried out by the Office of Naval Research, according to the information that you supplied us.
Transcription from 1977 Senate Hearings on the CIA’s MKULTRA program on behavior modification
Some fifty years after the MKULTRA project was purportedly enacted and/or canceled, Monday Night Football moved from prime time to cable. As a non-cable subscriber, I wound up one night at the sports bar Dram Shop in Park Slope. The bar’s loyalties were neatly split in half, color-coded according to throwback jerseys, and the signal feed was divided as well. While the flat screens encased above the bar drew from Time Warner, further along the bar, where the pool tables and dartboards reside, these TVs had their hi-definition come via DirecTV. As the game progressed, a curious phenomenon arose. Those of us seated at the bar whooped and moaned the moment a play unfolded, while five seconds later, the other half of the establishment loosed their whoops and moans. A natural delay reverberated throughout the space, the signal delayed by the divergent feeds. Amplifying the delay was the fact that what the television audience saw was not what was happening on the field at present, but what had occurred only moments before.
The replay slowed to the speed of cold syrup, so as to savor the moment, to delineate the blurred instant from every possible angle. It then reverted back to the pregnant moment of the snap, the next play suddenly in motion. The game remained ongoing, but there was a fragmenting of it as well, a suspension of time for previous plays that would cycle on no matter what else occurred on the field. These downs, cut from the continuum of “prime time,” would spin again and again: at halftime, game breaks, scoring recaps, game summaries, then on the ESPN and local news’ highlight reels, and again the next morning for armchair quarterbacks to witness again. Televised professional football, as it exists now, unfolds in real time yet also folds back on itself through video replay, with viewers’ minds made to both record and erase each play as it happens. Parallel worlds, like center and nose tackle, collide down after down after down.
“Current memory theory posits a seven second temporary “buffer store” preceding the main one: a blow on the head wipes out memory…the sense of the present also covers just this range and so suggests that our sensory input is in effect recorded on an endless time loop, providing some seven seconds of delay for scanning before erasure. In this time the brain edits, makes sense of, and selects storage key features.” New Scientist July 2, 1970
It’s December 7, 1963, just over two weeks since the President of the United States was assassinated. On flickering televisions nationwide, millions of spectators watched as Kennedy’s head whiplashed in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and bodyguards rushing towards his body as if to tackle him. Respooled countless times on the evening news –and with the emergence of the Zapruder film, replayed in slow motion again and again and again, to where national grief turned to numbness– American minds were fragile things that first week in December, unable to sustain any more visual damage.
The annual Army-Navy college football game, historically played the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, had been suspended in the wake of the tragedy (and from 1964 till 1979, would be played at “John F. Kennedy Stadium”), was set to resume that December weekend, in part to resettle the country’s psyche, to return to the normalcy of entertainment. And until late in the fourth quarter, all seemed normal. That is until Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh, his offense down in the red zone, faked a hand-off and ran off-tackle for a touchdown.
Seconds after the point-after-touchdown, viewers at home witnessed the unfathomable: Army was back near the Navy end zone second and quarterback Rollie Stichweh again faked a hand-off and ran off-tackle for another touchdown. “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!” announced CBS play-by-play man, Lindsey Nelson. Nelson, whose loud plaid sports jackets anticipated the budding psychedelic age by producing a scintillation effect on-screen, had to assure millions of Americans that they hadn’t just experienced a mass hallucination, even though that is exactly what happened.
That warping of time, that instantaneous replaying of what had occurred only moments before, was due to the diligent and daylong efforts of Tony Verna, who –before leaving the world of the “Hail Mary” for live satellite feeds featuring Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II– invented instant replay that day. A director of the 1960 Rome Olympics, the 30-year-old Verna became hooked on the powers of video tape, how it could be more than mere storage of programming. Directing broadcasts of live football games, Verna perceived nothing but dead air: fixed single-point perceptions of the field, the huddle, the moments before the snap. Viewers were stuck watching the grass grow between plays. And once the play was on, the camera, trained on the line of scrimmage, had to follow the ball. Blink or grab another Budweiser from the icebox and you missed it. Any movement or collision away from the ball could only be perceived by those in the bleachers. “And if it didn’t happen on TV, it didn’t happen,” Verna told sports writer Joe Starkey. Verna perceived a space to be filled between each proscribed event, where the previous play could be watched again, or a new angle of the football movement observed. Rewinding and marking crucial bits of play on the tape itself, Verna realized that video could expose new vantages and angles on the field –previously unglimpsed by the “home” team– and a new experience of the game could be seen. Rather than beholden to the game clock, time itself could be suspended in a football broadcast.
But it required a 1200-pound videotape machine to be transported from the control room at CBS in New York City to Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia, a veritable offense line’s worth of weight, but whose recording head was jogged on the bus ride over. Still inserted into the game, the videotape machine gave the production team fits. When it wasn’t recording any football moves, it was failing to overdub the previous recording, of an old I Love Lucy episode. Throughout the game, the machine kept rolling up “hash” –that haze of scrolling static familiar to all VHS users that appears on videotape for several seconds before a decipherable picture emerges. But Verna had experienced “hash” before during those Olympics telecasts and devised a solution: his audio technician would sound a beep when the image underneath was of the huddle and two beeps when huddle broke and scrimmage began. As sports writer Joe Starkey playcalls that historical day:
Clear beeps meant a clear picture. Verna waited all day to hear two clear beeps. Finally, in the fourth quarter, it happened, right after Stichweh faked a hand-off and ran off-tackle for his team’s final touchdown. Verna took a peek at his monitor — “I had to make sure it wasn’t [I Love] Lucy” — and quickly alerted Nelson through the headsets with a simple, “Here it comes.” The play immediately ran again at full speed.
Nelson had to soothe the psyches of his audience that they were not hallucinating, that the C.I.A. had not enacted MK Ultra II via the cathode tubes in every living room, that Army’s Rollie Stichweh had not just again faked a hand-off and run off-tackle for yet another touchdown. Such trickery still only accounted for 6 points and when the final gun cracked like thunder and lightning, Army still lost to Navy 21-15. Stichweh had come up short against his rival, Navy’s Roger “The Dodger” Staubach, a quarterback known for his scrambling maneuvers.
“The original purpose of scrambling devices was to make the message unintelligible without the scrambling code. Another use for speech scramblers could be to impose thought control on a mass scale. Consider the human body and nervous system as unscrambling devices…the mass media could sensitize millions of people to receive scrambled versions of the same set of data.”
–William S. Burroughs, The Electronic Revolution
In the early 70’s, Lee “Scratch” Perry, in conjunction with recording engineer Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock, was responsible for one of the earliest dub albums, 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle. Who came first remains undecided and ultimately unknowable: there’s the stripped but unaffected rhythms of Herman Chin-Loy’s Aquarius Dub, Java Java Java Java by Clive Chin and Errol Thompson (which rides the calliope of toy melodica master Augustus Pablo’s “Java” round and round, each spin mutating the beat into a new tune), and the sound cavity-expanding Pick a Dub by Keith Hudson, a dental technician turned dark prince of reggae.
But the first dub was the result of a technical mistake, a malfunction. It was made at Treasure Isle studios by engineer Byron Smith and his sorcerer-in-the-making apprentice, King Tubby. One night in the studio, the engineers were cutting a “dub plate” (an exclusive, one-off pressing of a track for deployment in blowing minds at a dance party) of a Slim Smith song to play come Saturday night. Only the vocals got left off. As Bunny Lee recalled in Katz’s oral history of reggae, Solid Foundation: “It was a “mistake”… one evening them a cut dub plate and when them cut, it’s difficult to put in the voice, and Smithy a go stop it and Rudolph “Ruddy” Redwood say, “No, make it run.” When it done, him say it art and me and Tubbys stand up right there so, me look ‘pon Tubbys and Tubbys look ‘pon me.”
‘Pon the replay, King Tubby reconvened to his teensy studio, located at 18 Drumilie Ave. in the Waterhouse ghetto, a locus where there was no space to make rhythms, only lay down vocals, overdubs, and effects. From that teensy nexus, dub radiated outward until it encompassed the globe, influencing not just Jamaican music, but also disco, UK punk, new wave, hip-hop, 80’s boogie, minimal techno, American pop. The “version” took an already-extant song and re-imagined it. It dropped out the voice and soon after the guitar or any extra instrumental bits, instead adding in effects and noise to emphasize previously unheard rhythmic interplay. As David Toop writes in Ocean of Sound: “The rise of the version would ultimately pave the way for the experimental contours of dub, in which previously recorded songs would be remixed to emphasize drum and bass.”
Almost every Jamaican 45 would feature a dub of itself on the flip side, both for economic reasons (it’s cheaper to fill a side with an already-recorded track) and because such novelty was a hit in the dancehalls. And the hotter the riddim, the more permutations followed. New vocals could get voiced, saxophone or melodica could highlight a new melody of it, or a deejay like U-Roy or Big Youth could spit colorful commentary atop. Or else the drum, organ, and bass could be run through all manners of tape manipulation: delay, space echo, extreme equalization. In one example of necessity being the mother of invention, engineer Philip Smart came up with a new dub invention at Tubbys’ studio, subjecting the tape machine test-tone to short bursts of repeated delay: “When it starts, you hear “beep-beep-beep-beep-beep…”
Each new run-through of tape could create not just new angles and topographies, but entirely new worlds. It’s a phenomenon that Erwin Shrödinger could get with: each version of a riddim splits into different realities and new songs, to where the dub itself becomes the musical subject. Repeated and replayed multiple times, dub renders a familiar song pliant and memory of said song unstable and uncertain. David Toop elaborates:
Dub unpicks music in the commercial sphere. Spreading out a song or a groove over a vast landscape of peaks and deep trenches, extending hooks and beats to vanishing point, dub creates new maps of time…balm and shock for mind, body, spirit. Dubbing, at its very best, takes each bit and imbues it with new life, turning a rational order of musical sequences into an ocean of sensation…The effects are there for enhancement, but for a dubmaster they can displace time…suspend a moment.
More than any other modern televised sport, football and video are closely entwined. Major league baseball now deploys instant replay, but only to review home runs, while basketball now scrutinizes possession and whether a shot beats the buzzer in the game’s final seconds. But football –on each and every play– is wholly beholden to its attendant visual record. The game becomes irreversibly influenced and often times decided by replay.
From its earliest beeping signals, fields of static, and full-speed repeating of a previous play, the use of video has become as crucial a part of the football viewing experience as the on-field action itself. If the bygone era of NFL Films –with its slowed footage of steam curlingout from face masks– paralleled the rocksteady era of Jamaican music, today’s telecasts use all sorts of technology to intensify the viewing experience, the equivalent of the manic digital dancehall era. Video has moved from merely being a component of the home-viewing experience to an integral part of the game’s fabric, with replay being deployed to reverse calls and perceive aspects of the game previously lost to the human sensorial data of the present moment. Watch a televised game on any given Sunday and your eyes will be barraged with visual “versions” of reality, to where time itself gets suspended. An entire day can easily pass in such a fashion.
For most of the game, few football incidents are ripe for dubbing: off-tackle runs for no gain, huddle breaks, chain measurements, punts, incomplete passes, et cetera, these aspects of the game wholly escape replay or visual memorization. There’s no need to remember these incidents. But within every game lie mere seconds of play that get amplified, looped, zoomed-in on, and dubbed into wholly new realms, cycling over and over. This now becomes the version of the game that will get recapped at halftime or on ESPN talk shows the remainder of the week.
Today, the football viewing experience dilates into a mesmeric montage of hyper-real visuals and dubs. And as creative as versioning was for reggae artists (see King Tubby’s “Beat Them in Dub,” Bullwackies’ “Takeaway Dub,” Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Concussion Dub,” Scientist’s “Seconds Away,” Mad Professor’s “Penetrating Dub,” etc.) any broadcast now contains similar moments: “Touchdown Dub,” “Fourth Down and Dub,” “Are Both Feet Inbounds? Dub,” “Dub it Across the Goal Line.” Multiple angles and slowed-down replay defines “Turnover in Dub” (especially when it becomes a matter of gauging knees, elbows, the player being down by contact). There’s the “Don’t You Fumble Dub” that Perry anticipated. Most excruciating is “Injury Dub,” the searing pain of an injured player spun past our eyes at the slowest frame-per-second rate possible again and again. Watch the replay of a Monday Night Football broadcast from 1986 between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants at your own peril. Linebacker Lawrence Taylor pounces upon quarterback Joe Theismann with all of his weight and we are made to watch Theismann’s leg buckle dozens of times, until our own leg feels as if its femur and tibia will snap.
In the Saints’ comeback victory in Super Bowl XLIV, video replay ultimately decided the game. The Saints had just scored a touchdown, but their two-point conversion failed. What the Superdome audience and the viewers at home saw in the moment was a pass from quarterback Drew Brees to his wide receiver that came up just short of the end zone. But upon further review, real time itself became suspect. Slow motion replays, shot from more angles than even the Kennedy conspiracy theorists could muster, established a new reality: what was not a catch in the moment became one “in dub,” the receiver spinning on his head in slow-motion, the nose of the pigskin just breaking the plane of the goal line. The play was reversed, the conversion was good, and the Saints went on to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy. In an alternate reality, perhaps the Colts prevail.
Come Monday morning, it is ultimately just a game, even for the players and viewers concussed by it and made to feel its effects. But as William S. Burroughs posited in The Electronic Revolution, his manifesto on the cut-up method: “Is the message more potent with both word and images scrambled on video tape? Let’s try it scrambled and see if we get a stronger effect.” The head is made to feel a much stronger effect each and every Sunday of football season, with time and space made to be but echoes in a new reality, one informed by Ford F-150s, Dunkin’ Donuts, BlackBerry, Bud and dub.