Blind Hunger, Black Bodies, and Radiohead’s In Rainbows

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I’ve been trying to confront something for a while now; this is one of what I imagine will be a series of attempts to do so over a lifetime.

In my dim parochial middle school years, a musical shift spurred on by my uncle led me to Radiohead’s In Rainbows. It was an incomplete introduction: as far as I can remember, there were only three songs on the mix CD he gave me. As a consequence, I didn’t receive the full experience of the album until many years later. I didn’t know the name of the band I was listening to, the tracks converting untitled when I uploaded them to my parents’ desktop computer. I didn’t associate the album with its visceral cover art, splashes of fluorescent orange and yellow that have always looked to me like a Death Star explosion.

To say the select tracks I had from In Rainbows made a measurable impact on me at the time would be an overstatement. But there was an energy I recall responding to. The beautiful, floating climax of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” the anxiousness of “Jigsaw Falling into Place,” the spastic clamor of “Bodysnatchers.” They were part of a large tapestry of music that informed those earlier days. More than that, they were a featured part of the background noise during the year when I can first remember someone calling me a nigger.

Repulsion is a spectrum; it acts as a barometer for how people come into contact with a word like nigger. Disgust and expectation can and do share the same space, though they may look in opposite directions. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the word, but it was the first time the word had me beneath it. Its projection in my mind came immediately, without thought. There were no quotes around the word, as if to make it unreal. No matter what you’re hearing, in order to understand it, you have to hold it. And frankly, there are more characters to deal with in “nigger” than in “nigga.”

Early memories of prejudice have a tendency to recede until they spring large and abruptly with the gaggle of accumulated experience. Radiohead wasn’t my band of choice when it came to expressing my growing rage, which intensified by the time high school came round. Other moments of selected visibility—of being unseen until unwanted—would happen, as they continue to happen. But these moments, joyful or painful, come to mind differently when entangled with music, and more so when the tangle becomes a knot you’ve chosen to tie yourself. Even if I choose to listen to a piece of music expecting a specific emotional release, I also accept that I have no control over what will come to mind. When you understand where a moment comes from, when you know a song or a clip will forever belong to that place and that time, jand you choose to go back to that moment with those things in mind—this, as Hanif Abdurraqib knows, “is loyalty.”

Without too much shame, I can admit the first Twilight movie helped jumpstart my memories of listening to In Rainbows during high school. How many people heard “15 Step” for the first time as the end credits played? Speak your truth. Not long after that, maybe because of it, my listening became a little more educated. For one, I actually endeavored to learn some of the lyrics. The band in question finally had faces, names, history. But even through my retroactive listening of The King of Limbs, of Hail to the Thief, of Kid A and OK Computer, of A Moon Shaped Pool and Amnesiac, the three tracks from In Rainbows that had come first always felt the most familiar.

Making a song cemented, known—that’s how the process of truly owning music goes, I thought. But In Rainbows didn’t loom large for me until the fall of 2014. I was meandering through community college, hoping I’d eventually make my way to New York. On the way to school one of day, I was pulled over. The period of time before rage consumes you can become untenable to think about sometimes. I continued on to class after the incident was over. I couldn’t focus. Couldn’t focus to the point that my professor demanded I pay attention and tell the class what was wrong. A gun had been drawn on me on the highway, nervous fear creeping out of the officer’s mouth.

When you see a gun pointed at you, you put your hands out in front of you in an effort to appear cooperative. I don’t know what an officer sees at that point. More places for tiny weapons to hide, possibly. The class didn’t get much more from me about this than stuttering agitation. A moment—that is what life feels reduced to, especially when you begin to expect others will listen only when you have pain to speak about. That first “nigger” echoing through my middle school’s cavernous, sandy hallway. The stories told from the perspectives of people who get to drive away. The truth that, in the moment, I was listening to nothing at all. I could hear all of this in the car with me on the way home. To drown it out, I played “Bodysnatchers.” To consume the experience—in the hope that a kind of willful embrace might banish it—I replayed “Bodysnatchers.”

 

In February of 1946, a former US Army Sergeant named Isaac Woodard stepped onto a Greyhound Bus headed to Winnsboro, South Carolina.

Woodard spent most of his adolescence in Winnsboro before moving to North Carolina at age fifteen. He spent six years there before moving around again: first returning home, where he joined the Army, then hopping over to Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and eventually to California where he shipped off to New Guinea.

WWII took over Woodard’s life until the sprawling conflict was won. He would stay in the Pacific Theater for over a year, going from New Guinea to the Philippines. He served as a longshoreman of some distinction, earning a battle star to go with his Asiatic-Pacific Theater Campaign Medal and Good Conduct Medal. Somehow ending up in South Africa in 1946, Woodard returned stateside, to Long Island, on February 7. Five days later, he took the morning bus bound for Winnsboro. An hour into the journey, the bus made a service stop.

When violence nips at our heels, it takes away our ability to focus on anything else. Part of the crime of the peculiar institution (in this case, I mean slavery) is its fitful, sporadic demand for our attention, both when we’re alone and when others can’t see it. We see the ghosts inside the mouth of the nigger-sayer. Sometimes, the ghost is inside of us, pushing against the hand that trembles with rage. The ghost doesn’t want to inhabit your body. It laughs at you for having one at all.

At the stop, Woodard asks to use the bathroom. In court, Woodard quoted the driver as saying, “I ain’t got time to wait.” “Goddamnit, talk to me like I am talking to you,” Woodard replied, “I am a man just like you.” The driver relents, Woodard goes, and the journey continues. Would it be better to say that Woodard requested to use the restroom? Appealed? Pleaded even? The record doesn’t spin like that. In Batesburg, South Carolina, the bus stops and the driver leaves. Waiting outside, two police officers and the driver’s vocal slip for services rendered. “This soldier has been making a disturbance on the bus.” Legal tender.

Woodard’s night after this moment is left to the mercy of recollections given in the wake of blunt trauma. In court, Woodard testified to being beaten multiple times in an alley before being taken to jail. The next morning, he saw a judge who, despite the state of Isaac’s face, chided him for his conduct the night before, proceeding to fine him fifty dollars and give a sentence of thirty days labor on the road. Woodard had forty-four dollars cash on his person, along with a check from the government for $694.73. Woodard used his forty-four dollars toward the fine, and consequently pleaded guilty. He had no representation in court that day, no friends to contact, and no idea where exactly he was being held.

Around 5 p.m., the Chief of Police came to Woodard’s cell to take him to the Veterans’ Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina. By the time he’d returned stateside, Isaac was nearly a month away from his twenty-sixth birthday. After February 12, after the repeated abuse of a billy club to his face and eyes in the night, after losing consciousness on the street, after withstanding that sham of a trial the following morning, after telling the officer he could not see and therefore could not sign his own name to endorse the government check, after being offered whiskey by the Chief of Police, after finally being told what town he had been held in, after refuting the officer’s claim to the doctor that Isaac had attained his injuries from, or perhaps as a consequence of, drunken behavior.

After and after and after, because there is nothing but raw cause in the minds of those who believe you deserve every blow you might ever receive, Woodard would spend the rest of his life blind.

 

“I have this thing,” Thom Yorke says in a 2007 interview with NME. He’s talking about the aggression, the anxiety that seems to come through in “Bodysnatchers”:

I have this thing—just before I get really sick I’ll have this 12-hour hyperactive mania, and that song was recorded during one of those. I felt genuinely out of it when we did that. The vocal is one take and we didn’t do anything to it afterwards. We tidied up my guitar because I was so out of it, my guitar-playing was rubbish. My best vocals are always the ones that happen there and then.

The onset of sickness dovetailed with longtime producer Nigel Godrich’s idea to put the band in a space outside their area of comfort. Recorded in the library of the dilapidated Tottenham House in England, “Bodysnatchers” drew a fair amount of attention for its unexpectedly raw sound. There is a clawing, evocative restlessness driving the song that resonates wider throughout the entirety of the album. Such unease seems to have been a creative impulse for the band, given how arduous it was to get In Rainbows together. “It was very difficult in a way we had never experienced before,” Godrich told Rolling Stone. “The material was great, and we knew it. The difficulty was actually, physically doing it.”

The “doing” is hard to appreciate without first understanding where In Rainbows sits in the band’s history. After 2003’s Hail to the Thief, an album that some members of the band felt was either rushed or overlong, and with their six-album contract with EMI fulfilled, Radiohead took a long break. Yorke began recording his first solo album, The Eraser, in 2004, while fellow band member Jonny Greenwood composed soundtracks for Bodysong and There Will Be Blood. Both Yorke and Greenwood’s endeavors would, at one point, coincide with the recording of In Rainbows.

By early 2005, the band began what would amount to a drawn-out, frustrating writing and recording process that, involving a new producer and the lack of deadline, consumed the rest of the year. These periods, initially unfulfilling and infused with a power to break something—like a band—are crucial, if only because they may lead to the acceptance of letting go. So Radiohead did just that, leaving the studio to tour Europe and North America where they would perform many of the songs they had been working on. In a 2006 interview with the New York Times mid-tour, Yorke said he felt “it was really, really good fun, because suddenly everyone is being spontaneous and no one’s self-conscious because you’re not in the studio.”

The re-involvement of Godrich after the tour ended set Radiohead on the course to finishing the album, and by June of 2007, the first pieces of completed songs were being posted on the band’s Dead Air Space blog.

It is too simple to compare the process of creation to the experience of war, but there is something to be said for what witnessing destruction can do to you. Much of the language used in the orbit of In Rainbows contains imagery of things falling apart. From Dead Air Space, March 13, 2006: “tearing my hair out, too much at once. furiously writing, working out parts, cracking up. not much time left. unshure [sic] about everything.” By April 3, 2007, nearing the album’s completion, this physical unease shifts to something disembodied: “‘mental note’ disconnected / disjointed / accidental / sketchy / fragmentary / synthesized / impermanent / momentary.” In the space of a year, the band’s nearness to a breaking point finally shrank until everything that once threatened the whole was finally eclipsed. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, etc.

We might transfer this idea of accomplishment over insurmountable odds over to a history we believe to be linear: what was before and what was after. Nested within the track list of In Rainbows, “Bodysnatchers” stands out as an unbridled cry against confinement only achieved after the culmination of years. “They got a skin and they put me in / All the lines wrapped around my face / And for anybody else to see.” But there is no accounting for circumstance. Many things separate Isaac Woodard and the song “Bodysnatchers” endeavors to be, far beyond the yawn of time. The danger of pulling two objects closer to one another is that you risk forgetting where they first came from. Because beyond direction, time is also the ground that moves with us. And this has less to do with being linear than it does with understanding that everything really does happen at once.

 

On the whole, my confrontation—with In Rainbows, with life under scrutiny, with the associations that entangle the two together—concerns “otherness” and that malleable language we often fashion to describe it. A common understanding says that when you flip the word “other” into a verb, you are reducing someone to a superficial size. They’re no longer anyone. You thing them. My confrontation concerns this reduction. It may be that some people really do shrink others at the end of their bigot’s whip. But reducing something suggests you saw the whole of it to begin with. You/I/they other someone because you/I/they are unwilling to see the whole. This is categorization; there can be no room for confusion.

Every time I have been othered, I became uncomfortably conscious of my body. Several people seem to think this means an awareness of appearance, but really it’s something much stranger. It’s a pushpin through the arches of my feet, a chalk outline of my shoes on the ground. I think of how much air sits between my head and the ceiling, if I’m indoors. The nearest cloud, if I’m outside. Sometimes, I think of leaving the situation. Then I realize there’s nowhere to go. The otherness follows. Very rarely is it a conscious following—it’s more like a shadow. There is a light that pushes it out of you, casting some sort of distorted and featureless outline. Then you see: the distortion is the feature. It blips into existence with the slightest wiggle of a word coming from someone’s mouth. “Well, would you look at that.” One of the harshest things you can do to a person is unmake them. Take them away from themselves, acknowledge nothing but their vessel.

Over a lifetime, there are very few indications given as to whether we might be able to truly leave our bodies. The idea that we are trapped in them, somehow forced and squeezed inside, might be close to the truth. It might also be colorful language that disguises a kind of nausea caused by our mind when it looks for its own reflection. It’s a fair question, wondering what it is the mind looks for outside itself, what it hopes to find if only it could see. But I have this stubbornly heavy existence to face, an existence fixated upon and viewed with suspicion or disgust or thing-like curiosity. Would you look at that? Look at what?

The officers who beat Isaac Woodard must have experienced the most intense flight from their bodies during the experience, one that had less to do with seeing than with targeting, while Woodard must have never felt more trapped in his. This dichotomy summons “Bodysnatchers” back to me: “I do not / Understand / What it is / I’ve done wrong / Full of holes / Check for pulse / Blink your eyes / One for yes / Two for no.” What “Bodysnatchers” accomplishes has little to do with the origins of its inspiration, which range from the obvious (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) to the iconic (The Stepford Wives). It captures a feeling that has been, for me, seemingly inexhaustible. It is movement and energy and rage that goes on and on, until it seems like only death can stop it.

Midway through the song, there’s a break. Crunchy guitars and insistent percussion abruptly drop out in favor of an unexpectedly clear, melodious section. Space opens widely with reverb, and Yorke’s voice, which nearly screamed his indignant observations in the first half, gives way to a verse that seems to take stock of its surroundings:

Has the light gone out for you? / Because the light’s gone out for me / It is the twenty-first century / It is the twenty-first century / It can follow you like a dog / It brought me to my knees / They got a skin and they put me in / They got a skin and they put me in.

The plateau of relative sonic peace this verse rests on, as long electronic guitar notes drift alongside Yorke’s reverberating voice, inevitably dips back down into the spastic chaos that opens “Bodysnatchers”—but there is context because of it. What, to me, always felt like desperation before the break, becomes a kind of daring determination. The unwieldy sound becomes directed. The target turns backward onto the thieves themselves.

Of course, justice doesn’t work this way. The power Radiohead summons from the depths of their artistic talent is not the kind that shifts a bullet, or a beating. In the wake of Woodard’s blinding, national outcry over the incident resulted in a botched federal trial that left the offending officers free of legal repercussion. This after the primary suspect admitted to striking Woodard in the eyes. The inevitability of the trial’s outcome was evidenced by the alleged applause that erupted from the courtroom after the verdict was read.

There is no substitute for a life maligned. It may be solace to some that Woodard’s case, along with a plethora of others concerning beaten and murdered black bodies, contributed to the ignition of a sprawling movement for civil rights. And I understand that what’s done is done, that there can be no necessity in the moment, that it is a frame placed in hindsight. But there is little comfort in knowing that what still exists out there is the same violence by another name, another cover. A “pale imitation,” as Yorke says, that people seem to overlook if only because white is the closest thing to a color you see in the afterimage of a bright light.

In November of 2007, guitarist Ed O’Brien told the Columbia Daily Spectator,

“Bodysnatchers” will always remind us of Tottenham House, a decrepit mansion where we recorded some of the album. This track reflects the weird energy of the house.

This is his truth. Mine lays somewhere on the 515 Highway, between drops of sweat that splash against a trembling gun and the knowledge that Isaac Woodard would live a long life until his death in 1992. Longevity is no measure of quality. I can’t pretend to know that the years after his sight was stolen were joyful or heartening. But this is the web in which people of color have become entangled: a life lived amidst everything and everyone that tries to destroy you, and the inkling that escape for you may not always mean what it does for others. I’ve seen it coming, this blind hunger for all the body might survive. And I’ve seen its antithesis: an unbridled, inevitable living that cannot be taken hold of no matter the stopping power it faces.

I’ve seen it coming. This is where it passes through.


Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas, NV. His nonfiction work has appeared in the NPR magazine Desert Companion, as well as online journals such as Little White Lies and Much Ado About Cinema. His fiction has appeared in the Lullwater Review at Emory University. Currently, he's still in the desert interning at The Believer; he spoke at the magazine's literary festival in 2017. He's also a part of the Writer's Block, a literary education hub and Vegas's first independent bookstore. More from this author →