Above quote courtesy of Lou Barlow (continuing the tradition of “smooth” transitions from one entry to the next).
Last week I started thinking about Elliott Smith for the first time in awhile, due mostly to a recent AV Club feature, “Music we can’t listen to anymore,”in which Josh Modell admitted that since Smith’s death in 2003, the music just doesn’t hold the same appeal. Although I don’t want to believe that my love for any musician is conditional, and would rather see music as a form independent of its maker, regardless of who the maker is or whether or not he happens to be vapid, or evil, a total fuck-up or exhibiting other grave character flaws. Elliott Smith wasn’t any of those things, but unfortunately, I’m there with Modell in discovering that his death has cast a grim light on the songs that once enchanted me.
But my problem with the music now isn’t that listening to it depresses me, it’s that I feel absolutely nothing when I listen to the albums that used to move and fascinate me. I don’t want to listen to Either/Or and feel nothing.
To the casual fan, Smith’s death was hardly a surprise. They’re the ones who enjoy citing song titles like “Miss Misery,” and his alleged heroin addiction during the Self Titled era (when actually, the heroin “act” was, at that point, part of a persona) as proof that it was only a matter of time until he committed suicide. The casual fans were bemused when the hardcore fans spent the day of his death crying, and they asked us how we could have missed all of the obvious signs.
We hate the casual fans.
Because for those of us who really loved him, we felt contentment in knowing that, despite everything — the alcoholism, the whispered rumors of childhood abuse, the drug addictions and other self-destructive behaviors — he was surviving. The fact that the songs even existed seemed like his way of reporting back to earth after a long excursion to the underworld. His albums were documents, proving that something fragile and beautiful could be woven out of pain; we heard hope where others, who didn’t take the time to understand him or his music, heard only “that depressing shit.”
When he did commit suicide at his LA home in October of 2003, many of us actually felt betrayed. We had rooted for him. We had heard reports that everything was getting better — he was clean, healthy, considering taking up exercise, working on an ambitious double-album at his own personal studio. The essence of survival had been so crucial to the music’s magic; now that he’s dead, the music feels dead, too.
I saw Elliott Smith play “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards, which is how a lot of fans discovered him. I didn’t actually become a fan that night — instead, I promptly forgot about him for the next two years, but for some reason, the memory of his Oscar performance has stayed with me. I lived in the dorms of the fine arts high school I attended, and all of us boarders gathered around the girl’s lounge TV to watch the awards show. None of us knew who Smith was, or where he had come from, but the moment he entered the stage, the broadcast took a surreal turn. He clearly didn’t belong, his unassuming manner at odds with the Hollywood pomp. We all held our collective breath as he softly strummed through a truncated version of “Miss Misery,” (nominated from the soundtrack to Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting), and sat back on our heels when he disappeared again.
“Wow,” someone said. “That guy should win.”
That guy lost out to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” and probably a good thing for him, too. He seemed baffled enough by his already moderate success; he didn’t need to add Oscar-winner to his name.
I graduated from high school in 1999. I was burned out. The creative writing program had chewed me up and spit me back out again. Although I’ve never regretted my art school experiences for a single millisecond, devoting your life to poetry at the age of 15 isn’t for everyone. Not being able to say (or write) precisely what I meant without worrying how a roomful of people might respond (too prosey! flat! trite! not at all poetic!) made me exhausted. I hated having to couch every observation, every sentiment, in what seemed to be flowery, unnecessary language for the sake of the “literary arts.”
When I listened to Either/Or for the first time, it changed everything I thought I knew about writing. I might even blame that album for the four-year dry spell I experienced, in which I wrote a grand total of two decent poems, and only because I majored in Creative Writing. Elliott Smith is the only singer-songwriter whose lyrics I’ve paid any attention to — they’re wry, unpretentious, and raw. I had felt a lot of anger towards poetry, and, especially, toward a certain mentality (probably in my own mind) that said I couldn’t say exactly what I meant in a straightforward manner. Listening to Smith’s lyrics, I knew it could be done, and I didn’t want to write again until I figured out how.
Some favorite lines from “2:45 am:”
“I’m looking for the man that attacked me
while everybody was laughing at me.
He beat it in me, that part of you,
and I’m gonna split us back in two.”
I picked up the album on a whim from a record store in Bowling Green, KY, on the way home from a family vacation to Nova Scotia. Still knee-deep in my obsession with Lou Barlow, I had heard of connections between Barlow and Smith: the slacker image, the lo-fi sensibility, and acoustic navel-gazing.
What puzzled me the most was the disparity between the album cover and the music behind it. Not yet thirty at the time the cover photo was taken, Smith already looks grizzled and weary: he’s pictured in a graffitied backstage dressing room, styrofoam cup in one hand, cigarette smoked down to the filter in the other, wearing a faded Hank Williams Jr. t-shirt and a trucker’s hat, an inscrutable look in his dark eyes. He’s scarred, tattooed, and too old for his years, the guy you don’t want to meet in a dark alley.
And even though the opening chords of “Speed Trials” come on dark and ominous, the voice that breaks through is gentle, alone in a room, trying not to wake the neighbors. The tough exterior melted away to reveal something delicate and hushed, like a wisp of smoke that lingers after a candle has been extinguished. But despite the ethereal quality of his voice and the gossamer threads of his guitar playing, the songs never appeared weak because they were anchored by an insistent tone of defiance threaded throughout. His fragile whisper held more intensity and shock value than the loudest punk rock caterwauling. By the time I heard “Between the Bars” for the very first time, I found myself in that dim room with him.
He was part of the world, yet separate from it — an observer. He very rarely wrote from a first person point of view, instead choosing to weave his narratives about distant “hes” and “shes,” or even more often, addressing the stories to an unnamed “you.” (Nobody broke your heart./ You broke your own ’cause you can’t / finish what you start”) After awhile, I came to believe he was talking to himself, with a mixture of light scorn, affection, and regret.
I wish I could experience that first listen of Either/Or again. Not the anonymous hotel room with my parents, or the thousand petty annoyances of high school (that seemed epic at the time) I was trying to put behind me, or the uncertainty of the future — but that pure feeling of surprise, the thrill of expectations defied. On the other hand, would I have reacted to the music the same way if it hadn’t been for those circumstances?
Some records come to us at the right time, at the right place. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be the right time anymore.
“I could make you satisfied in everything you do
all your secret wishes could right now be coming true
and be forever with my poison arms around you.”
Maybe one day I’ll find my way back to the poison arms, and when I get there, it won’t sound so much like defeat.
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…
Which is unfortunate.
It was the summer of 1994. At least, I like to remember it as summertime, but it could as easily have been a rainy southern winter. I spent a lot of time after school at my friend Caroline’s house and we entertained ourselves making up stories and listening to Broadway musicals. That particular summer, it was Phantom of the Opera. We challenged ourselves by singing some of the more complex “arias,” warbling through the scales and trills of the title song, “Think of Me,” and “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.” Yes, I was that girl.
I hated the music Caroline listened to. She seemed to like classic radio that played a lot of 50s rock and roll, which I’ve always found gratingly cheesy. Instead, I opted for the sublime sounds of Ace of Base, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Counting Crows, the transcendent experiences offered by Celine Dion, The Gin Blossoms, and The Cranberries. “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum and “Posession” by Sarah McLachlan were my favorite songs.
Caroline and I were listening to the University radio station when a song came on that made me stop whatever I was doing (math equations? hanging curtains? building a scale model of a Mayan temple?). It was a breezy little piano song that might not have been out of place in a cabaret or a musical, but that touched depths and beauty I had never heard before. The singer’s good-natured voice was all syrup, allowed to spill wherever it may. The announcer never said who the artist was. I thought I’d never hear that song again.
It’s not cool to admit you like Tori Amos anymore. In fact, it hasn’t been cool for quite a long time — maybe it never was. Not long after Amos gained some modest commercial success, other “strong female” types started popping up all over. It was the age of Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco and PJ Harvey, the age when reversed gender roles were still considered a novelty in the mainstream media. Male singer-songwriters were “sensitive” and the women were “angry,” an emotion that became somehow revolutionary because it was unladylike.
Women musicians were (and perhaps still are) categorically dismissed. A woman writing pretty, soft music was derided as “chick music,” or “Lillith Fair shit,” because it appeared weak and sentimental. But woe to any woman showing more power or strength in her songs — even the most complex human emotions, in the hands of a female singer, were reduced to “anger” in the eyes of the media. Basically, the girls can’t win.
I met a lot of critics of Tori Amos who said she was angry, that she complained too much, was a whiner, that she was “still too hung up on getting raped.” This last criticism bothered me the most. Aside from the insulting “get over it” sentiment, I wondered how these casual Tori Amos haters could decipher her oblique and puzzling lyrics enough to pull that interpretation out of the hat because, as a devoted fan who memorized every word, I never understood a fucking thing she ever wrote. It doesn’t matter. I’m not one of those music fans who really cares about the lyrics — that’s not what I go to music for. That’s why I read poetry.
The song that I had heard on the radio haunted me for several weeks, even long after I had forgotten the melody, the voice, anything about it. A sense of it stayed with me. Almost by accident, I discovered the album Under the Pink, picked it up in the music store (back in the days of Blockbuster Music, with their lovely listening stations) because it looked intriguing, and found that track six was my song: “The Wrong Band.”
I devoured Under the Pink that year, absorbed every last note, every sigh, each breathy yawp and wail until it became part of my psyche. The controlled, light pianos suites turned thrilling, even dangerous, when they threatened to careen off their tracks into a dark, abstract world. As much as Tori was scorned for being fey, her world didn’t just contain elves and fairies and other harmless, whimsical things; it held creatures long in tooth and nail, ready to decapitate and feed. She set the tone from track one, “Pretty Good Year,” a song that floats along, happily, airily, before rushing you breathlessly to crescendo over crunchy guitars. “Bells for Her” wheezes and creaks — was that a toy piano she played on that song, or a very old one? I used to have one of those toy pianos with the plunky sounding keys. There’s something satisfying about the awkward insistence of those notes, the way it seems to make a mockery of the very idea of how a piano should sound.
The album created its own architecture in my mind. It was a large white farmhouse with open spaces and plenty of light. What was just under the floorboards? A mystery. But I knew the house hid in a never ending field of sunflowers. I wanted to live in that house, with these songs as a soundtrack, the rising and falling of the piano swirling through the wide open spaces, up the stairs into a tower, and back out through the windows. Music had never done this for me before, and I was filled with gratitude.
I sang. I waited until those magical times when my parents left me alone in the house and I sang myself hoarse. The acoustics in the hallway just outside my bedroom were particularly nice because the high-ceilinged corridor ran through the entire house, creating a cavern of rich sounds. I enjoyed singing “Happy Phantom,” but I could never get “Crucify” quite right, especially that twisty little trill when she sings the word “chains” in the chorus. After Boys for Pele came out, singing “Hello, Mr. Zebra” was a fun diversion, to follow her voice up and down the scales at a rapid-fire pace.
I still catch myself singing “Mother” when I’m all alone.
Within a couple of years I impressed/scared my friends by sounding just like Tori. Anyone who has ever tried to sing her knows that it’s impossible without aping every gasp, every oddly stretched syllable, every inflection, no matter how erratic. It is written. But it was a freakish ability I had, this ability to imitate her so completely. Fifteen years later, I think I’ve undone most of the damage, but I still can’t hit a high note without feeling the urge to just let my voice slide and lurch a little before reeling it in.
Long story made only slightly shorter, I stopped listening to Tori after a while. She made three great and weird albums, Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink, and Boys for Pele. Where could she have possibly gone after that? I started to agree with some of the naysayers when they called her music “self-indulgent.” But she was exactly the right singer-songwriter for me when I was thirteen (and 14, 15, 16, etc.) and I’ll never fully understand why she’s inspired such hatred (or at the very least, extreme annoyance) from non-fans.
Because of my intense love for her work, I learned to ask more from music than what the Top 40 offered. I wanted music that helped me recognize a part of myself I never knew existed, that touched some greater and more powerful emotion in me, and that changed the way I saw the world, even if briefly. Tori was the gateway, the catalyst that turned me away from the mindless pop of Celine Dion, and primed me for my next, all-consuming musical obsession — which will be the topic of my next entry.
Recently on Facebook, there has been a rash of users posting applications like “Albums that have shaped me,” or “Albums that have changed my life.” Now, I’ll start off by saying that lists and rankings such as the classic “Top Five Desert Island Albums” have always presented something of a challenge for me. Current top five? Can’t do it. My music-listening habits of the last four years have been so incredibly fractured that I’d be hard-pressed to make a cohesive list that reflects my current aesthetic. There’s one or two records I’ve listened to consistently (Frengers and And the Glass-Handed Kites, both by Danish band Mew), and a handful of records that I like in the most casual of ways (In Ear Park by Department of Eagles, TV on the Radio’s Dear Science, even a would-be fascination with Pinback’s Rob Crow and his various projects). But five solid choices? And what about top five of all time? Can’t do that either. There was a time in my life, say about six or seven years ago, when I was dead certain that there were four or six(never five!) perfect records (with staying power, no less) I could name on demand.
Because of the aforementioned difficulties, I actually find the “Albums that have shaped my life” to be a more comforting format for sharing my “top” records. It’s easier to talk about, to quantify. The albums either had a profound effect on me, or they didn’t — and that’s something that will never change. I will impose no limits on number. There will probably be more than five but less than ten. Who knows?
Criteria include 1) an album I can listen to in full, without skipping a track (or at least no more than two tracks), 2) an album that remained a favorite for a significant period of time, and 3) one that possibly changed the way I thought about music altogether.
So without further ado, and in no particular order (the numbers are a formality):
1. Either/Or by Elliott Smith
2. Under the Pink, Tori Amos
3. Post, Bjork
4. To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey
5. One Part Lullaby, The Folk Implosion
6. III, Sebadoh
7. If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle & Sebastian
This list is not at all surprising if you consider that they reflect my adolescent period, the time when we are all a little more sensitive to pop culture and absorbed the trends of the time, possibly internalizing them for life. I discovered all of these albums when I was between the ages of 13 and 19, years 1994-2000.
These choices don’t necessarily reflect current tastes; I almost never listen to Tori Amos anymore (unless I need something I can sing along with on a long drive), and although I still enjoy Bjork’s earlier albums, most of her work after Vespertine doesn’t interest me much. On the other hand, I am Lou Barlow’s girl always and forever. True, he has a 75-25% “unlistenable crap” to “brilliance” ratio, but I will always wade through the 75% of crap to get to the gems. Belle & Sebastian will always be welcome in my stereo and my iPod (although not in my car — more on that later!).
In the next few posts, I’ll explore a handful of these essential albums/artists and the subsequent obsessions they spawned in a more thorough fashion. Until then, toodles.