Body Politics were a New Wave band from Boston active in the mid-late 1980s. I discovered their video for “Land of the Free” recently on an old VHS tape of music videos my father pieced together in 1986. His recording was pulled from broadcast on V66, a Boston UHF channel that hit the air in February 1985. Though it was modeled after the nationally dominant MTV, it served a local niche of artists and fans who still couldn’t pick up that channel.
According to both Discogs as well as the caption provided by YouTube user embee2006 (who I assume is Body Politics guitarist Michael Bierylo; they uploaded a pair of songs from the band’s 1987 gig in Allston, too), the band consisted of Bierylo on lead guitar, Mickey Pipes on drums, George Bunder on bass, and Kerry Fusaro on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. Apparently, Pipes had previously played in a band called The Eggs, who released one 7″ single in 1981.
I’m unsure how long Body Politics existed and played around the Boston region (and possibly further afield), but it seems like “Land of the Free” was the band’s biggest stab at mainstream attention. It was one of 4 tracks on their self-released 1986 EP Cool Man, which is their only release accounted for on their Discogs page (other than a questionably titled song “Stop Acting like a Blonde” they contributed to a Boston rock compilation in 1984).
The reason the “Land of the Free” video ensnared me was not only because of what a great time capsule it was of quotidian mid-80’s Boston, but also a time-stamped installment of the perspective that diversity, immigration, and public/civic life are what make America great. As Bierylo writes in the caption below this video, “The song was a reaction against the policies and rhetoric of the Reagan era, and oddly enough is as relevant, perhaps even more so, some 20 years later.”
I may still do a rip in the original display resolution for my Vimeo archive once I have time. What an insane time/place to have lived: affordable, mid-’80s Boston. I often wonder how much different my life would have been if my family had stuck around there.
Classes resume today. Happy Spring Semester to all those teaching, learning, and administrating.
The first time I saw Ash, I was in middle school. The band were a trio on a bizarrely packaged tour promoting their (arguably*) second and (inarguably) best record, 1977.
The second time I saw Ash, they were a quartet, and I was wandering around Irving Plaza under the directive to promote a tour-only EP they put out to help boost attention for their album Free All Angels. I was interning for their label at the time, and I was downright indignant that none of their singles had gotten any real attention in the US, especially “Burn Baby Burn,” a scorcher that had all the ingredients of pop chart success (including a couple of high-profile UK awards) but barely even scratched the United States.
Six years later, while record shopping in London, I found an original vinyl copy of 1977, lamenting to the clerks that Ash were one of my favorite bands, but no matter what they did, they could barely even get arrested in America. The clerk replied that they couldn’t get arrested there anymore, either, citing how they hadn’t really put out any great records in a while. In the interim, they had released Meltdown (2004) and Twilight of the Innocents (2007), neither of which, despite the gaudy cover art of the former and the title of the latter’s opening track, really caught fire.
I don’t remember if the band announced it before or after that London record shop conversation, but Ash had floated the idea of stopping making albums altogether to focus on singles. It seemed like a bizarre move at the time, though history has certainly not proven it misguided. Ash were within their right to do whatever the hell they wanted, but looking back now as an American fan of 25 years, I can sympathize with their frustration at the time.
I’ll never forget bumping into an old college radio friend (who ran WERW-AM from 2001-2002) at that Irving Plaza gig, watching his face light up when the band broke into their early single “Jack Names the Planets.” He repeatedly commented that he hadn’t heard, or even really thought about, that song in forever. Ash had spent their first decade (and four records) as a band being touted as “the next big thing,” and by 2003, even most music nerds in the states barely had any idea who the hell they were.
I think the importance of 1977 is self-evident in how the band have centrally the band have incorporated the year 1977 into their brand. I would argue that no record had a greater impact in simply helping remind Americans – who were, despite Weezer’s golden era and the ‘punk revival’ led by Green Day and Rancid, deluged with grunge’s watered-down cousin Modern Rock – that bands were still playing power-pop and garage-laden punk across the pond in 1996.
I’m going to assume I was watching MTV (or possibly M2 during a “free sample” weekend on my local cable provider) relatively late one night that year when the video for “Goldfinger” came on. I remember being intrigued. There weren’t a whole lot of other bands who sounded like that: sugary tenor vocals, grungy guitar that didn’t feel very “grunge” to me, and willing to take that commercial suicide-risk of resting their instruments almost completely several times per verse.
It took a sequence of life-changing events to arrive there, though. I had already seen the video for “Goldfinger” once, and likely heard it on the radio a couple of times, when I ran into a record shop in town adjacent to mine to see if they had a single for Stabbing Westward’s hit single “Shame” (an infectious bit of industrial-pop-metal with a music video so stupid I could write a separate essay on why). The clerk had no idea what I was talking about, but some dude in a leather jacket turned to me from down the counter and asked “Are you coming to the show tonight?” I had never had anybody ask me about coming to a show, much less a guy who looked like he could have been in a band as bad-ass (to 13 year old me, anyway) as Stabbing Westward. Stunned, I replied that I didn’t know. The labret-pierced Alt-Rock dude told me they had a bunch of copies of the single at Toad’s Place.
Intrigued, I convinced my Dad to take me to New Haven for the gig that night, a supportive gesture that has no doubt changed the path of my entire life. Stabbing Westward happened to be touring with Ash and I Mother Earth. Even at the time, that lineup seemed strange to me. If I ever meet Tim Wheeler, my first question would be how the hell that happened. I would assume some record company glad-handing, since a teenage Irish power-pop trio did not pair well with a brooding industrial quintet from Los Angeles (that weren’t even on the same label), but it may have just worked out that they played some festival together and Stabbing Westward invited them on board. If there weren’t just enough digital evidence to prove that the two bands played together in the Midwest that Fall, I would probably doubt my own memory. Brian Phelps’ new book about Toad’s place lists Stabbing Westward and I Mother Earth in their official band index, but not Ash. I don’t have any ticket stubs, photographs, or concrete third-party documentation that this show ever happened. I don’t have a copy of the “Shame” single, either, which makes me think labret-piercing dude was lying to me.
I’m certain that 1977 wasn’t the first album I evangelized to anyone who would listen, but boy did everybody I know get an earful about Ash around the time. I remember showing the CD insert to my friend Alison (no idea why I had it with me), who gave me a blank cassette to copy their music onto just because they looked like a cool band. My 8th grade art teacher, who played us Echo and the Bunnymen tapes while we drew, allowed me to put 1977 on in class. All I remember was my friend Jeff joking that the intro to “Kung Fu,” which sampled a fight scene from a Sammo Hung film, sounded like his house when he pissed of his parents. I even scanned the album cover (my first time I can ever remember using a scanner) for a class project explaining how Compact Disc technology worked.
I can’t quite compare 1977 to anything else I remember hearing as an adolescent. The naivete and strings on “Oh Yeah” and “Let It Flow” both felt equally sincere. “Girl from Mars” featured moments of the nastiest guitar distortion imaginable for a pop group, but was still somehow the most sugary punch on the album. Though it wasn’t my priority as a listener at the time, Rick McMurray’s drumming is incredible on this record (and, without combing through dozens of retrospective reviews, I’m unsure whether he got enough credit for such). The band tacked several minutes of drunken vomiting as a “hidden” track onto the fireworks-laden finale of “Darkside Lightside” – a bit of buffoonery that they probably laugh off/regret now, but still the edgiest shit in my whole music collection at the time (provided I hadn’t bought that One Fierce Beer Coaster cassette yet). It seemed punk as fuck, although the band’s connection to punk was about as specious as their connection to Britpop.
1977 would be a first-ballot record in the Power-Pop hall of fame no matter what year it had been released, but releasing it in 1996 doomed the band in several ways. A decade later, after the Libertines had revived the British garage movement, the Arctic Monkeys kicked up a (well deserved, now that we know about the staying power of Alex Turner and Company) shit-storm of hype on the heels of their first record – a storm that Ash may have gotten a solid chunk of had they been born a decade later.
Or not. It’s pretty clear that American music fans are fickle about which British artists to which they’ll lend a moment of their time. Considering how ginger and toothless so much British crossover success has been, it’s hard to imagine a moment in the post-punk era where Ash would have gotten as big as they seemed on the heels of even their best work. Even Two Door Cinema Club, whose Millennial fans nearly trampled me to death at Coachella in 2013, didn’t seem to lead a new crop of indie-dance-pop fans down that Irish rabbit hole.
I kept up with the band for the remainder of that decade, though I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t paid too much attention to their new singles-oriented output. Not that I had necessarily written them off (unlike another Irish band of note, they had put out some good material since 2000), but I couldn’t stop returning to 1977 whenever I did revisit Ash.
This changed, though, when I took my first trans-Pacific flight in 2019. On the way to Sydney from Los Angeles, somewhere over Oceania, I got restless and started browsing the airline’s music catalog to sample through the tinny, shitty proprietary headphones they passed out in their pre-COVID way. This was how I found out that Ash had, despite their promise not to^, released a new LP called Islands. I clicked play on the first track “True Story,” and enjoyed it quite a bit, but it didn’t strike me as a “return to form” where their teenage bursts of energy were concerned.
NOW THE PATH AHEAD IS GONE NOW THE FIGHT IS REALLY ON
What a catchy opening! I felt my heart rate going up.
I CAN SEE REAL TROUBLE IF WE WAIT DON’T HESITATE
My eyes were nearly welled up with tears even before the chorus hit. What a fucking amazing song.
ANNABEL HAVE NO FEAR YOU CAN BE MY GUINEVERE
Oh god yes! Tim Wheeler is still a master popsmith. I wanted to fight somebody over this.
IN THE STORM I WILL DRAW YOU CLOSE IN THE TEMPEST IN THE SNOW
I hit “repeat” and listened to “Annabel” at least 10 times before moving onto the third track, the admittedly corny yet memorable “Buzzkill.” I felt like such an idiot for falling off with this band, especially since I’d been a fan since I was thirteen. Tim Wheeler hadn’t lost his ability to write an amazing song, and Ash hadn’t lost an ounce of relevance. I put “Annabel” firmly within my list of 10 favorite songs of the decade, and it felt great being able to do that nearly 25 years after Ash became one of my first favorite bands.
It was hard to compartmentalize in 1996, especially considering how young I was, but Ash were truly singular within the international pop-rock landscape. They were never meant to be clumped in with Britpop; they just happened to be British citizens putting out great pop music in the mid-Nineties. I misguidedly considered them punk because I didn’t have a much better frame of reference (having no idea who Teenage Fanclub were back then). Now that we’re not so shackled or silo-ed by calcified ideas of genre, it’s great to be able to enjoy the brilliant 1977 without scraping to figure out exactly where it fits. Ash still don’t, and one thing is for certain: they were always, and remain to this day, simply ASH. I’m so grateful they decided to be a band.
LINER NOTES *I refer to 1977 as Ash’s second album, even though it was technically their first album recorded and released as a full-length LP. Their “first” album Trailer, which came out before 1977, was a compilation of singles, b-sides, and EP tracks to get fans excited for the band’s next LP, hence the title. For reasons of congruity, I’ll refer to 1977 as their second album, mainly because it’s always felt that way to me. ^ I was so out of touch with the band in 2015 that I had completely missed out on their return to the LP format, Kablammo! that year. I’m not proud of this.
I don’t have a whole lot of time to write at the moment, but with 2022 finally here, I’m going have a whole bunch of new essays and announcements in the upcoming months. December has been quite busy, to say the least.
Anyway, no sooner had I come out of retirement with the Not-by-the-Cure challenge had I already written half of the clues about Weezer. I owe a tip of the hat to the Wizard and the Bruiser, who did a great episode of their podcast recently that put me into a more positive frame of mind about Rivers Cuomo and his compatriots. Also, Jake Young referred to Matt Sharp (who I long considered the band’s secret weapon early on) as an “alpha-Chad,” and I haven’t been able to think of anything else regarding Weezer since.
Here you go! Tell a friend, make sure to hashtag it #NotByWeezer, spread some New Years’ cheer with power-chords and songs about nerd stuff, and never forget to bring home the turkey if they bring home the bacon.
How great does a songwriter have to be to pen a generation-defining anthem? How about when he does it at least twice on one album, all while drunk and highly allergic to success? Such is the legend of Paul Westerberg, the guy who made it seem so effortless.
There have been multiple books published trying to unravel this legend, but the more I learn about similar great songwriters of the 80’s (e.g. Paddy McAloon, responsible for my third-favorite record of 1985; see below), the more I realize they’re just humans with the same insecurities or apathies as anyone. Westerberg himself had a career painted by what the major labels of the 20th century referred to as “failure.” You wouldn’t know it listening to his band’s major-label debut, which sounds like the retroactive soundtrack to an entire era. Westerberg’s hero Alex Chilton accomplished something similar (retroactively) for the early 70’s with those Big Star records. Paul would sing tribute to Chilton in what mayyyy (shrugging while saying it like a question) be the best-known Replacements song on “Pleased to Meet Me,” but today’s essay isn’t about the totally okay, Bob Stinson-less Pleased to Meet Me.
I remember finding it curious that Michael Azerrad cut off his Our Band Could Be Your Life chapter on the Replacements when they left Twin/Tone, but he had every right to. Critics still have a weird relationship with Tim, though I never understood why. The cover art is grotesque, and I’ll begrudgingly admit that the band does sound like they’re on autopilot for a couple of tracks here (“Lay It Down Clown” and “Dose of Thunder” were once denounced as ‘filler’ in a Rolling Stone classic review), but there’s nothing on Tim that couldn’t have been on Let It Be. This did turn out to be Bob Stinson’s swan song with the group – taking a bit of a subordinate role as lead guitarist before slipping out the back door and disappearing into various Twin Cities kitchens (and his addictions) until dying in 1995.
The thing that was so easy to forget about Westerberg was that he did have big-time aspirations. He wanted to write songs that spoke to people. He wanted to sell records. In fact, he spent the better part of two decades as a major-label artist – albeit, personally, I would struggle to name a single one of his solo tracks. In fact, the first time I can remember hearing his name was in a family friend’s car sometime in 1996. My friend Beth implored her mom to put Paul Westerberg on (it would have been his second studio album Eventually), but we wound up listening to Ben Folds Five’s first album instead (it was “Julianne;” you never forget a lyric like “I met this girl she looked like Axl Rose”). Soon, though, I discovered The Replacements, but ironically, I don’t remember how.
What I do remember, though, is listening to Tim on repeat in my discman on a trip through Spain in 2000. Songs like “I’ll Buy” and “Kiss Me on the Bus” will always bring me back to those long rides through parched Iberian landscapes. Also, I split a hotel room in Barcelona with a friend named Tim. I don’t remember if that coincidence had any bearing on my time there, but it was definitely linked to that coming-of-age experience.
I wouldn’t make it to the Twin Cities for another decade, but I got the impression that by 2011, the Minneapolis and St. Paul that created Prince, The Replacements, and Husker Du (three artists at the peak of their powers in 1985) was a distant memory. A lot of the old Scandinavians and Catholic VFW-dwellers had been dying out, and gentrification had certainly done a number on the cities, right?
I was wrong. The Twin Cities’ landscape had changed a good bit since Westerberg, the Stinson Brothers, and Chris Mars first ground out a demo of “Raised in the City,” but the spirit still felt there. I had spent many nights on couches in punk houses, but I’d never before stayed in house in a punk neighborhood. Two of the Midwestern punks I stayed with brought me through a series of alleys to Matt’s Pub, where we got (absolutely worth the hype) Jucy Lucy burgers. I returned in 2017 for the Oral History Association conference, which I now regret not having returned to since then, looking back through that linked entry. I think that, sometime in the coming years, I will make it a point to converge with the OHA again. Apparently, they are returning to in-person next Fall in Los Angeles. Anyway, I’m veering off of my point.
As my shared thoughts above on Tim demonstrate, it’s exceedingly hard to write anything original about the Replacements without getting somewhat personal. So, because I don’t have much else to contribute to that conversation, here are my three favorite lyrical moments from Tim and why:
A good friend of mine from the Midwest once overheard “Here Comes a Regular” while walking home after a bad night, and he was convinced the universe was mocking him. I immediately knew how he felt, considering how that’s one of the saddest songs ever written. “I used to live at home / now I stay at the house” just HITS me every time I hear it, even on nice, sunny days with no worries.
“If I don’t see you, for a long, long while, I’ll try to find you left of the dial.” As much as it physically hurts to pick a favorite track from this album, I always wind up going with “Left of the Dial.” It’s so goddamn powerful and such a love letter to the entire cultural landscape that Westerberg knew. There’s a reason that Rhino Records milked the title for at least one 80’s Underground compilation.
The entirety of “Bastards of Young.” Westerberg, at least in my mind, named that micro-generation after the Baby Boomers but before the Gen-Xers. I was going to single out the bridge lyric “Unwillingness to claim us/ you’ve got no warrant to name us,” even though I had long heard it as “Got no War to name us,” which would also be a powerful line.
Here’s to you, Paul Westerberg. May all of your Walgreen’s shopping trips go uninterrupted my local news teams.
LINER NOTES: to round things out, these are my full top 10 favorite albums of 1985 – another mammoth year for great music (and American pop culture at large -although two of these albums are British and one is French).
From what I can tell, Ben Irving took two road trips through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: once in May of 1939, and once in August of 1941. In both cases, he drove through from Wisconsin and continued down to the Lower Peninsula, taking one of nine auto ferries across the Mackinac Strait (the Mighty Mac suspension bridge would not open until 1957).
He did not make it to Marquette, the largest town and cultural anchor of the U.P. (Joe Pera decided to set his TV show there, if there may be any doubts) until his second trip. Avoiding a stop in Marquette may seem odd today, but most towns up there that feel like hollowed-out blips on the map in 2021 were robust mining towns preceding World War II. After I visited the Keweenaw Peninsula, for example, it seemed blatantly obvious that mining is why Michigan Technological University is located way up there in Houghton. Also, the location isn’t really too far afield to other North-Country cities like Duluth and Green Bay; it just seems like a massive haul to any of the “trolls” (an endearing term for those folks who live in “under the Bridge” in Michigan’s lower peninsula, about 97% of the state’s population).
As various friends and colleagues had predicted, my partner and I thought Marquette was awesome. Northern cities, especially those as remote as Marquette, have a special charm to them. Locals tend to be good at making their own fun. Much of the city is contained within hills that bottle it on a descent into Lake Superior, where one finds the massive, lumbering ore dock situated down the street from a nice brewery that bears its name.
The Landmark Inn (formerly The Hotel Northland)
Unlike other small Michigan cities, Marquette retained a majority of its beautiful early-20th century stone architecture, particularly along Front Street, leading up to the Landmark Inn, where Irving stayed in August 1941. At the time, it was barely over a decade old and called itself the Hotel Northland.
There are plenty of sources that claim the building is haunted, particularly the Lilac Room on the top floor, where a young librarian allegedly hanged herself in grief over her lover dying sailing on Lake Superior. There are also urban legends that tell of a jealous man who murdered his unfaithful girlfriend and buried her body in the hotel’s foundation sometime in the 1920s. In both cases, paranormal enthusiasts report hearing noises that suggest neither young woman ever truly left the hotel. Of course, the hotel’s spartan official history doesn’t mention any of this.
Though the Hotel Northland’s original era ended with its closure in 1982, the Landmark group refurbished the building in 1995. The results, as one might expect, are grandiose and expensive. Like most hotels who haven’t had a date with the wrecking ball, this one was fairly easy to re-photograph. I stood in front of the Peter White Public Library to get my photo, as the original photographer/painter did ninety years ago. Here is the result:
Harlow’s Wooden Man
My partner and I spent a good few minutes wandering around the corner of Spring Street and 5th Street, where I read in a few different, confusingly phrased accounts that Harlowe’s Wooden Man stands today. The landscape over which he towered 80+ years ago is almost completely overgrown today and encased in private property. At first, I felt the standard type of garden-variety indignity an Urban Geographer like myself would feel seeing any piece of bizarro history is fenced off from public enjoyment. Then, I realized that HWM probably owes his “life” to being neglected in some wealthy person’s back yard. Like countless others who walked down the fencing behind an Advance Auto Parts, I felt the temptation to jump the chain-link fence and get a cheeky selfie with the wooden giant. If he were on public property, the city of Marquette or some niche historical society would have to encase him in some type of panopticon to prevent a bunch of hooligans from climbing onto his withered old shoulders and toppling him into a pile of lumber.
The story behind this highly unusual (though I doubt unique) hidden attraction is unusual in itself. According to local lore, Amos Harlow (the postcard misspelled his name – probably an honest error by the publisher) was out for a walk in 1875 when he saw a cedar tree that resembled a person, so he decided to cut it down and bring it to a hill behind his home, where he added various embellishments, including a cane and fine hat. I don’t know if the cane and hat you see in the postcard image were Amos’ originals, but today the cane is long gone (a reflection of how uncool canes are now, for whatever reason), and his current hat resembles a cage of something that Uncle Sam might wear. Here are a couple of more detailed shots I could get from the other side of the fence nearby:
Today, the Marquette County History Museum names their quarterly journal after him, and it’s entirely possible that Amos Harlow’s descendants live in the house facing 4th Street on that property. It’s fun finding whichever photos of the wooden man taken over the years – the ones which have been digitized, anyway. One photographer who snapped an ironic image of HWM in the 70’s did so from behind the figure with permission from Harlow’s granddaughter, who he claimed lived in the house on the property. Notice, if you click on that link, that the wooden man didn’t have a cane in that picture, either. I would have to do a lot more investigative work to figure out when the old man lost it. Someone had better help him! He’s out in the middle of the woods (and on a hill!) without a cane!
Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great weekend.
One of the classes I teach, ENV 300 (Environmental Justice) is divided into two halves: environmental disasters on a global scale, and engineered disasters in our own backyard (i.e. Michigan). The second half kicks off with the 1973 (and ongoing) Michigan PBB disaster, which was foisted on the state by the Velsicol Chemical Company, whose plant in St. Louis made Love Canal look tame in comparison.
Jane and Ed both visited both of my sections, telling the story of just how badly the Michigan Chemical plant damaged their community. I knew a whole lot about the PBB crisis that the plant stumbled the state into (largely learning from Joyce Egginton’s brilliant book The Poisoning of Michigan and an eponymous BBC documentary from 1977), but I didn’t realize the vital role the community has taken with the EPA’s work to right decades of wrongs by Velsicol. The amount of money spent on cleanup (all of which, since 1995, has come from taxpayers) has long superseded the profits generated by the plant’s production of however many “-master” products.
If you’d like to join in on the Pine River Task Force’s next meeting and learn more about what they do, it will be happening on Zoom on Wednesday, November 17th at 7pm ET. They will post the public Zoom link on their website a few days beforehand.
Happy November, everyone. To many, that means we’ve just passed another Halloween celebration. Also to many, that means that Dia de los Muertos is fast approaching. To infinitely fewer, that means a new Song-a-Day challenge from Sonic Geography.
I should elaborate; I retired from building these things months ago. A pair of my friends from DC who began a supportive Facebook group during the pandemic shutdown in 2020 gladly took over delegating the responsibility once I told them I was stepping down from the monthly task. But, never content to let sleeping dogs lie, I decided to reverse my “retirement” for a month. This is hardly a Jordan/Hašek/Eminem/Jay-Z move on my part; I merely had another set of Not-By song cues ready to go last year that I never got around to building into a full month.
With no further ado, I give you: THE NOT-BY-THE CURE song-a-day challenge for November!
There’s no real November connection I can ascertain for The Cure. Robert Smith was born in April, and Faith came out in April 1981, so it’s not like there’s a major anniversary here. Why can’t we just use November to celebrate the existence of one of the greatest and most unique British rock bands of the past fifty years, anyway?
So, please do download the image to your phone, play along, use the hashtag #NotbytheCure, and just try to see in the dark. Just try to make it work.
I once devoted an entire episode of my first radio show to playing this record in its entirety, and I would do it again. Despite it’s prodigious length for a punk record, it still takes infinitely less time to listen to than Ulysses takes to read.
Not to be too hyperbolic, but this is the best album of the 1980s by the best band of the 1980s, and deserves to be considered one of the great works of Western Civilization. If you haven’t listened to Double Nickels on the Dime, just do so now and begin the next chapter of your life.
I could dedicate this essay to just praising the originality and uncompromising dark humor of the Violent Femmes’ definitive first album. I could tell you how Brian Ritchie’s bass solo in “Please Don’t Go” may be my favorite one ever recorded. I could also recount how “Kiss Off” is a sleeper for one of my favorite karaoke songs. I could also get into a one-sided argument about how, in a hardcore landscape facing the disintegration of Minor Threat and a takeover by meatheads, there was nothing more punk rock than scrapping anything electric or distorted and essentially busking for ten tracks. Instead, I’ll share a couple disparate memories related to the Violent Femmes which illustrate just how pervasive and timeless this record is, in spite of itself.
Flashpoint: 2003. I went to the WBCN River Rave with my college girlfriend and some of her friends from the Boston area. I was already pissed because Blur cancelled, and in order to keep some seats we snagged near the pavilion, we had to sit though Saliva for 30 minutes. Now, my audience is so niche that I’m probably not off-base to write that anyone reading this already thinks that Saliva are one of the shittiest hard rock bands to ever (1) emerge from Memphis or (2) have a cross-over hit single. Because it was a radio station-sponsored music festival, a lot of the people there bopped up and down to “Click Click Boom” and cheered as Josey Scott ranted that the Dixie Chicks should have been kicked out of “our” country. After Saliva finally finished their set and got the hell offstage, we were more than ready for – “hey, who’s on next, anyway? …. JACK JOHNSON?”
Yes, the genius programmers at WBCN decided to follow a right-wing cheez-metal band with the most obnoxiously chill singer-songwriter to emerge in the twin frat-bro shadows of Dave Matthews and Brad Nowell. I didn’t know much of Johnson’s music at the time, and none of us had any beef with him, but like Matthews and Nowell, his fans hadn’t done his reputation any favors. Johnson himself was probably flabbergasted to have to follow Josey Scott’s talentless “Love It Or Leave It” boom-boom show, but the guy deserves a LOT of credit for resetting the temperature that day. As utterly inoffensive as Johnson’s music is, he helped dial things back a bit and put us all in a better frame of mind. Maybe that programmer DID think it through, in retrospect.
Anyway, the moment when my opinion of Jack Johnson shifted, permanently, came at the beginning of his third or fourth song, when he strummed the instantly-recognizable opening chords of “Please Don’t Go,” the third track on Violent Femmes. I perked up, probably vocalizing, “Is this dude really playing a Violent Femmes song? And a deep cut??” Turned out, that dude really was playing a Violent Femmes deep cut. He sang the first verse of “Please Don’t Go,” instantly making casual fans of every beleaguered music nerd in the amphitheater. It was still early enough so that the drunks were only tipsy, too, so I had yet to make a voyage to the bathrooms in a scene not unlike when Simon Pegg darts through a crowd of zombies in Shaun of the Dead.
Fast Forward 10 Years: 2013. The California Low Desert. Coachella Festival. My friend Laura and I met up to car-camp with a couple friends of friends. Our site was surrounded by, on one side, a group of nice folks who drove out from New Mexico, and on the other sides, about 15,000 of the worst people on the planet. However, Blur were playing, and although I finally got to see them play in Hyde Park in 2009, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see them on US soil for the first time*.
As the first night finally arrived, we watched the Stone Roses sleepwalk through their set before she split to go watch How to Destroy Angels, whose set conflicted with Blur’s. For those who don’t remember, How to Destroy Angels was a Nine Inch Nails side project with a relatively brief shelf life. From what she told me at our campsite later, she managed to get pretty close to the stage, where she befriended a short middle-aged man who mentioned his son was over seeing the Wu-Tang Clan. She could not get over how a person in their 50s would be that amped to see a Trent Reznor.
The following afternoon, our group migrated over to one of the main stages to see the Violent Femmes. As they took the stage, Laura lit up, turned to me, and said “Oh my god – that nice old guy I talked to before How to Destroy Angels?? That was the singer from this band!”
My response was hardly understated: “You hung out with Gordon Gano and didn’t tell me!?”
Laura defended herself, reminding me that she didn’t know who he was – Gano didn’t even mention being there to play at the festival! What a humble guy, considering how he wrote some of the most timeless and quintessential camp songs of the 20th century. So humble for a guy who created the best record of 1983, mostly when he was still a disgruntled teenager, forced to ride buses around Milwaukee and occasionally getting locked inside his house by his own parents.
Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo (who I’ve seen play with the band twice in between his stint being kicked out) opened their set on that blazing sunny afternoon announcing, “We’re going to play our first record for you, from top to bottom!” That’s the Violent Femmes for you – giving the people what they want! If only more foundational underground bands could be so thoughtful.
*I found out, years later, that the 2003 run supporting Think Tank was a nightmare for them, since Graham Coxon was no longer with the band, Simon Tong wasn’t a suitable replacement, and Dave Rowntree was going through coke-rage to the point where he was a tyrannical asshole to Nardwuar during their Vancouver stop. Rowntree did apologize and Nardwuar accepted, but goodness what an uncomfortable video if you find it.
^Am I the only one who can’t help but think about this when they look at this picture?