Gimmie Indie Rock!
Sometime during 1997, my cousin made me a mix tape that changed my life.
An exaggeration, yes, but I doubt I would be the same music snob whose blog you are reading (or not reading) today if it weren’t for that tape! If I wasn’t pretty sure that the cassette is now hidden in the dark recesses of my attic somewhere, I would dig it out to offer a track listing. I remember it included songs by Pavement, the Silver Jews, the Folk Implosion, and Daniel Johnston.
Out of all the artists on the mix, The Folk Implosion was the only group to really stick with me through the years (although there has been an awful lot of Daniel Johnston floating around my house lately, due to my roomie’s full-on obsession with the man’s expansive catalogue).
The musician I have loved for over a decade undoubtedly owes a great debt to the influence of Johnston’s scrappy, home-made asthetic: Mr. Louis Knox Barlow, original (and present!) bass player of Dinosaur Jr., mastermind behind the now-defunct Sebadoh, so-called “Godfather of Emo,” a chief purveyor of the early-nineties lofi movement, The Folk Implosion (and its bastard incarnations, the punked-up big brother Deluxx Folk Implosion and later, The New Folk Implosion, of which Barlow was the only original member), and various “solo” projects including Sentridoh, Lou Barlow & Friends, and simply “Lou Barlow,” the man himself.
Did I leave anything out?
In his heyday, he could probably have rivaled Chan Marshall for sloppy live performances, on-stage breakdowns, and general erratic behavior. I’ve heard stories, like the one where Courtney Love shrieked at him (four months after Cobain’s suicide) “I always thought you would be the one to kill yourself!” And during one of the more harrowing gigs in the later days of Sebadoh, he smashed himself in the head with his own guitar, ran off-stage, but returned to finished out the show, a capella, with blood running down his face.
I thought he was pretty rad.
Some of those original Sentridoh recordings go back to his teenage years, and in them you can hear ideas forming for later Sebadoh tunes (for example, a slow, instrumental cut of III’s “Freed Pig,” or a more jangly version of Bakesale‘s “Give Up,” recorded years before either of those albums). There’s a warmth in the crackle and hum of the eight-track, the gleeful and spontaneous cuts of Lou and his sister Abby singing silly songs together, the way some of the raw recordings summon up the image of a lonely, awkward youth rushing home from high school to do the only thing that redeems all the blemishes, all the humiliations of adolescence. The songs are a like a lifeline. Listening to some of that stuff can also be a pretty terrifying experience: warped television noises bubble up to a surface littered with cats wailing and Barlow’s deranged chanting, often in his own made-up language. What the hell is a sebadoh, anyway?
If my discussion of Barlow’s music is a little unfocused, bouncing from one unrelated thought to another, it’s because his discography is like a story with no beginning, middle or end. The various bands and side projects were incestuous, containing more or less the same group of guys arranged in a number of different combinations. Some dropped out, some faded away, others created side projects of their own which later, inevitably, merged back into Barlow’s sphere.
As for the beginning of my story, the fascination started with the voice. I was in a high school fiction workshop, writing a story about a musician, and I had imagined for him the most beautiful, perfect male voice I could conjure in my mind. When I listened to my cousin’s tape and heard “Natural One” for the first time, I found the voice I’d been hearing in my head for weeks.
I’ve always maintained that Barlow is underrated as a singer — which is understandable; he has a relatively limited range, a voice too brittle to ever convey subtlety or slip easily into falsetto, and sings in a plain, no-frills style. His voice is always too low in the mix and generally under-utilized (the absence of harmonies, in particular, has always irked me). However, his voice is also rich, velvet soft, and smooth, with a particular note of melancholy that adds weight to whatever he sings. Even when his songs sometimes devolve into schmaltz (or when he writes ditties about masturbating “three times a day”), you really, really want to believe in whatever he says.
And it’s exactly that earnestness that has always endeared him to me, as a singer-songwriter and as a man. Sometimes it seems like he has no filter between himself and the rest of the world. He’s as likely to converse with a stranger about a paper cut on his finger as he is to confess the details of his meth-fueled hallucinations. He seems to get as good as he gives, too; he appears, in turn, delighted, hurt, offended, pissed off, gracious, and baffled by the things he encounters in life. If I have five friends who have met Lou Barlow, it seems they have each met five different men. His excellent website provides a glimpse into his compelling world; the scanned-in photos, sloppy construction paper borders, drawings, and hand-written updates all appear to be the works of a deranged scrapbooker. Unlike other websites that exist entirely in an abstract, virtual realm, Barlow’s exists in a very tangible place: his living room.
I met Lou Barlow once, outside the House of Blues in New Orleans, and it made my day. The Folk Implosion was there, opening for the Melvins, but because of my job at a Bourbon Street bar, I couldn’t go to the show that night. A very kind door-guy noticed me lurking near the entrance, hoping to catch of glimpse of my idol, and went to the trouble of having Mr. Barlow come out to chat with me. O House of Blues doorman, if you’re reading this, I think I owe you a favor, a great big kiss, or probably something much dirtier.
I’ve told this story so many times that it’s starting to wear thin and grow holes like an old security blanket. The details aren’t so important anymore; a lot of it involves me babbling awkwardly and generally putting my foot in my mouth (like asking him about fellow Folk Implosion member Jon Davis, not knowing that they had parted ways a year earlier in some mysterious, traumatic fashion, an event that allegedly left Barlow depressed for awhile). Although I did have the distinct pleasure of explaining to him what a body shot is. Seriously? A guy who has been in several rock bands over the course of twenty years and publicly admits to doing large amounts of cocaine and crystal meth needs to have body shots explained to him by a nineteen-year-old? After my explanation, he pulled an expression of horror and told me I was a “Bad girl!”
I wonder sometimes if he would remember me, the girl who educated him on body shots. Eventually, I had to continue my trek across the French Quarter to work, but not before practically forcing him to hug me. “I have to do this,” I said.
I don’t know how to end this entry except to say that Lou Barlow has my loyalty for life. That’s part of the reason why I never really got into Dinosaur Jr — as far as I’m concerned, J Mascis is just in the way. I know that means I’ve been robbed of several classic indie rock gems, but psychedelic rock was never really my thing anyway.
A lot of Barlow’s “music” is so rough and raw (or lazy, in many cases) that it’s downright unlistenable, but I’m willing to stick around for the good stuff. I maintain that no one can write a sturdy melody like him — one with a solid enough foundation that it can withstand many costume changes, punked up or stripped down. Take a song like “Two Years Two Days” from Bubble and Scrape; on the album it’s a distorted piece of chugging power pop, but I always hear the potential for a mournful ballad, with chiming pianos. Any song from the Folk Implosion’s sun-pop, electronica-tinged opus One Part Lullaby (one of my favorite albums of all time), could be taken and recast as a gently-strummed and naked folk song. I’ve heard live acoustic versions of many of these songs and they’re devastating (especially “No Need to Worry”) when all the synthesizer layers have been peeled away.
I’ll leave you with a couple of videos. The first is a live performance of “Legendary,” a song that Barlow has claimed was written about Davis’ departure from FI, but was later used (“Candle in the Wind”-style) as a tribute to Elliott Smith. And the second video, one of my favorite things, is a brief clip of Lou Barlow and Elliott Smith interviewing each other. And that, dear friends, is my not-so-subtle transition into the next entry’s subject…