Somewhere, buried deep within my summer to-do list, is a low-priority item to re-tally my Blur collection. The collection includes all physical items of audio and video (still haven’t pulled the trigger on that elusive laserdisc) as well as promotional items and reading materials focused on the band. I’m already eagerly awaiting a stateside release announcement of Graham Coxon’s forthcoming autobiography, so I can put it next to Alex James’ first book. Also, this reminds me that I need to get my hands on Alex James’ second book (the one about cheese).
On a recent trip to Ohio, I stopped into one of my favorite massive independent (there really should be no other kind, and before long there likely won’t) bookstores and discovered the On Track series by Burning Shed publishing. To my shock, Blur were one of the first artists included. Essex musician Matt Bishop took on the enviable unenviable task of writing about every song Blur have ever released and likely some they haven’t.
The first comprehensive song-story book I ever owned was Niall Stokes’ U2 compendium, which Thunder’s Mouth Press released in the interim between Zooropa and Pop. At the time, I didn’t know I would ever write about music and place (ostensibly) for a living, but needless to say, it was inspirational. Every song does have a story behind it – an ethos would no doubt inspire Continuum to start the 33 1/3 series in 2003. Even the most obscure B-sides and demo tracks may have more interesting stories than the biggest hit. When I first read Into the Heart, I had a rudimentary understanding (at best) of what B-sides even were.
Bishop’s book on Blur has been enjoyable thus far. My lack of musical theory background does hinder it at moments where the musician-author gets fanboyish and technical over Graham Coxon’s chords and swerves, but I have nothing but love and respect for anyone willing to take on a task as unforgiving and headache-inducing as writing comprehensively about every single one of a superstar band’s recordings. And that’s coming from ME.
What I love most about going through Bishop’s vignettes has been how it’s given me a new lease on just why I like accumulating Blur materials. I never sprang for the 21 box, as I already owned most of the albums and, being in grad school, I couldn’t justify the expense on CD’s. A decade later, YouTube’s rampant monetization has made an endless rabbit hole of obscure recordings available at the push of a button. That being said, it’s overwhelming when you have literally anything better to do with your time, especially away from a keyboard or off of your phone. I still feel like I’ve heard less than half of Blur’s recordings, and I’ve been a fan for over 25 years. I’m fine with that, though, because I’m learning new things on almost every page of Matt Bishop’s book. As much as a handful of my favorite bands are less known, I love being a Blur super-fan, because there are always more recordings and more material out there to discover. I can’t even imagine what Beatles completists must go through.
Take, for example, an alternate, rocked out version of “Far Out,” which was, for at least a decade, available only via the 1999 “No Distance Left to Run” DVD-single (oh right…they made those, didn’t they?) and file sharing piracy. I knew that “Far Out” was recorded late in the Parklife sessions and remains the only Blur album track on which Alex James sang lead, but I didn’t realize they recorded any other version of it. The 1994 release was a cool aside but hardly an album highlight. The 1999 alternate version release is something else entirely. As off-kilter as this can be at times, I still love it:
Bishop also goes into details about the Parklife recording sessions based off of Steven Street’s camcorder footage, which disappeared from YouTube after being posted many years ago. Fortunately, somebody downloaded the footage from STreet’s website and re-uploaded it to YouTube, so I will embed it here. As I say about any streaming audio or video, enjoy it until it disappears again.
“[Greg] Dulli’s a Catholic boy blessed with a filmmaker’s sense of story, a robust, overly industrious voice that can’t quite stay on key, sexual hang-ups for days, and the seeming conviction that he may, in fact, be black.” – Joe Gross on the Afghan Whigs in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (4th Ed), 2004.
For a substantial portion of my twenties, I lived with venerated guitarist and session musician J. Tom Hnatow. We met because I needed a room when I moved to DC, he had a room to let, and we both loved Tom Waits. He spent a lot of time on the road, but whenever he was home, we would, predictably enough, bullshit about music. To this day, whenever I listen to the Afghan Whigs, I occasionally remember the first thing Tom said when I brought them up: “It must have been no fun at all being in that band.” I trusted Tom then, and I still trust him now, given his pedigree from years of hard-scrabble touring and babysitting various collaborators with various addictions.
Though the Afghan Whigs emerged from Cincinnati at the height of the hair metal/scuzz-rock era, which their long-lost debut album reflects, there was always something different about their scuzz. Their first album on Sub Pop, Up In It was just as problematic as it came out in 1990 as if it had dropped last year (despite the term not having dissipated into popular discourse from the academic bubble yet). However, Greg Dulli’s blatant love and admiration for Miles Davis and Billie Holiday made listeners wonder how serious he was about the band’s whole “track-marks and rage” persona. Bob Gendron did a good job demystifying Dulli’s story in his 33 1/3 book about Gentlemen, the Afghan Whigs’ 1993 major-label debut which frequently centerpieces any listicle about “bands who actually got better when they sold out (imagine that)”.
First of all, I think that ideology is flawed, considering how my favorite record of 1998, the Afghan Whigs’ swan song 1965, is sandwiched in between two other records by underground artists who generated their finest work using major-label machinery*. Of course, there was no rhyme or reason to how or why certain music of the Nineties has aged better than most. It feels like a lot of the most timeless shit from the 80’s went against aural and production trends (fucking saxophones…), but the timeless shit from the 90’s were about purposefully bucking whatever was popular and giving LOTS of love to your pop forebears. 1965 isn’t even the only “apart-from-indie-and-punk” album named after the authors’ birth year to top one of my favorite-albums lists this decade**. Maybe it was the sudden floodgates of cultural-text access which the internet had opened, but both Greg Dulli and Tim Wheeler both seemed like they would have had a hell of a time being able to experience their birth years as adults. I often waver on this about my own year of birth.
Either way, the Afghan Whigs’ completing their transition to noirish R&B made 1965 a perfect title. The cover featured Ed White walking in space outside of the Gemini 4 less than one month after Dulli was born. Though it take a few glances to notice it on the cover, he was attached to the spacecraft via an umbilical cord – entirely to symbolize Dulli’s own introspection about his birth following extensive treatment for clinical depression. Granted, what the hell do I know? I’ve only met Greg Dulli once – briefly – in 2007 at a Dinosaur Jr gig in New Orleans. He told me that he and Mark Lanegan were bringing their Gutter Twins project to DC that March, welcomed me to New Orleans, then went outside to smoke. Maybe he isn’t as complicated as we imagine he is, or at least no more complicated than anybody who’s made a career out of writing songs about fucking and fucking up.
To wit: 1965– perhaps the album that I’ve listened to more times than any record ever made. I’m unsure why that is, outside of the fact that I love it, the CD has always found its way into my car(s over the years), and it puts me where I need to be when I’m in a place I want to avoid. I did first hear it at that pivotal point in my adolescence, when “Something Hot” made it onto the radio while sounding nothing like anything else on the radio. I also took a major coming-of-age trip to New Orleans in 1998 and was still reeling from that six months later when the album came out. I remember buying my used copy of the CD, opening the booklet and seeing that they had recorded part of it in NOLA. The album definitely feels like the pulse of the Northernmost Caribbean City, dribbling in Creole voice samples and steel-pan drums over “Citi Soleil” and nodding to “some old boy who lives Uptown” in “Crazy.” There’s a moment in “Neglekted,” just short of the 3-minute mark, when a key change drops and releases the song into a gorgeous lounge, full of smoky background vocals and a suddenly ebullient protagonist, floating through it all.
Like many bands who became my favorites in high school, the Afghan Whigs split up around that time, too. Given the demons that seemed to permeate the band’s aesthetic, it wasn’t a big surprise. Within a year and change, Dulli had returned as the Twilight Singers, which at first felt like the unfinished business of a guy who had scrubbed his old garage-punk band of all grunge influence. Within a few years, Greg’s buddy Ted Demme died, he scrapped his solo album, and he poured his noirish melancholia into what would become my favorite album of 2003. After spending a decade channeling his middle-aged angst into the Twilight Signers project, he reunited the Afghan Whigs and, in the past decade, has released two very good new albums (with a third on the way). Imagine that.
*Ween in 1997 and The Dismemberment Plan in 1999; the latter had been dropped before the album came out, but they used that Interscope money-fountain to record it.
**Ash’s 1977 also earns that esteem from me for 1996.
I tell ya – this modern society a select few have built has got me jerkin’ back and forth between thinking “Maaaan, what a beautiful world” and “we’re all deep into de-evolution, everything is controlled by morons.” Well, once again, I’m back in the crate of the Not-By 30-Day Music Challenge monster I created toward the beginning of the COVID era, and yet again it is my birthday month. So, prepare yourselves to get sloppy while fighting that uncontrollable urge with the…
I had another idea that I may unveil this coming summer provided the usual suspects I know are still engaged with these song-a-day challenges then. But for now, go ahead and download this, share it with your friends, and hashtag it #NotByDEVO to guarantee good times.
If you’re curious, someone on the internet there’s a photo of me dressed up as Mark Mothersbaugh (or Bob, or Gerry, or Alan, technically) for Halloween in 2010. I even made my own energy dome. My best friend dressed up as Thor (bear in mind this was a year before the first Marvel movie for that character came out), and that January we put on a variety show called ‘Ragnarok’ where I hosted one segment in character as Mothersbaugh. Five years later, my friend hit me up, practically freaking out when they announced that the music for Thor! Ragnarok (2017) would be done by Mark Mothersbaugh. Life imitates art imitates full circles, sometimes.
There are two things “wrong” with this entry. First, Bazooka Tooth wasn’t my favorite album of 2003 (that designation belongs to either Blur or the Twilight Singers), but it remains my favorite hip-hop album of the 21st century so far (unless Clipse nudges it out). Second, I’ve already published this essay before on ZME Music, in 2013, to honor’s the album’s 10th birthday. However, I noticed that my entries have hit a snag recently, and I wanted to get this onto my personal site because increasingly more I.P. is vanishing from the internet, even from the early 2010’s, a point when most of us can agree that the internet had become culture. I’ll stop here and let you enjoy it. I’ll be back with some new, original material for you all to peruse soon. For now, good luck on the new semester to both students and professors! – Tyler
A Decade of Seeing New York as Ancient Rome: ‘Bazooka Tooth’ Turns Ten
“People can label me whatever they like. I don’t really care any more…I get told that I’m weird—but you forget that the whole reason you liked [Boogie Down Productions] in the first place was because you never heard anything like that before.” – Aesop Rock, quoted in the Harvard Crimson, 2003
As Ian Bavitz was writing the songs that filled out the 70 minutes of Bazooka Tooth, hip-hop was undergoing a protracted identity crisis. When the album dropped, ten years had passed since The Chronic had redefined the way that hip-hop was produced and marketed. Even as the 21st century ushered in an era of exponentially caving-in space-time compression, five years since a pair of game-changing deaths (in addition to the events of Columbine High School, September 11, 2001 and immediate eternity of unfocused war) gave an increasingly corporate hip-hop industry plenty of time to back away from controversy in a cartoonish manner. This is not to say that 2002 was a bad year; Phrenology, Quality, Original Pirate Material and others provided antidotes to the ubiquity of Nelly and Ja Rule. Unfortunately, the canon of chart-topping hip-hop across the end of the century contained an insurmountable number of songs about absolutely nothing.
In early mid-2013, Jamie Meline and Mike Render released a collaborative theme album entitled Run the Jewels, a front-runner for many critics’ hip-hop album of the year. The second track opens with a verse by superstar Big Boi.
“If you told me ten years ago that El-P was going to release a single with Big Boi, I would have called you crazy,” said my friend Ted the first time we listened to the song.
In 2003, Company Flow and Outkast were more so marketable ideas than extant groups, but both had been immeasurably influential on drastically different scales over the prior five years. By the turn of the century, Funcrusher Plus had put El-P and subsequently his label Definitive Jux on so many nascent hip-hop fans’ maps, and Stankonia put Big Boi and his erstwhile partner Andre 3000 into bigger houses. But within a few years, Outkast had split into two colorful halves and the brains behind Company Flow had set out on his own and unleashed his own fantastic brand of damage on an overindulged hip-hop world. Neither Facebook nor YouTube would exist for another couple of years, so MTV still had some artistic stranglehold. Hip-hop’s identity crisis played itself out on dying legions of CRT-monitors across the world. While Nelly was busy scanning a credit card in an exploited model’s ass at the end of the “Tip Drill” video, El-P was wandering around New York, getting radioactive guns pulled on him everywhere he went as he rapped “Deep Space 9mm.”
Had Def Jux’s moment in the sun come today, who knows how the lethargic minefield of PBR-financed music blogs and YouTube videos disguised as lazy websites would mishandle the label’s collective message. But by 2003, still well after the Napster-ingrained moment when college kids regularly saw fit to apprehend music by whatever non-monetary means necessary, every release branded with the Def Jux label was feverishly devoured. These included landmark releases by El-P’s friends in Cannibal Ox, the midwestern turntable wizard RJD2 (Deadringer, seriously) and most significantly, an enigmatic, racially ambiguous Long Islander who called himself Aesop. In 2001, Aesop Rock had helped rocket Def Jux from relative obscurity (amongst anyone without their ear to the ground of the East Coast indie hip-hop scene) when he created and dropped Labor Days. Unprepared for the circumstances of this trajectory, he recoiled as his label blew up amongst indie tastemakers and increasingly influential online music filters. On September 23, 2003 he released his auto-iconoclastic follow up, complete with surreal cartoon album art, a nonsensical name, and an unforgettable pastiche of antisocial hip-hop songs splayed across the album’s seventy minutes like a string of tags and slogans spray painted on the side of a rusted-to-death cargo train sitting forgotten on Staten Island.
The most nostalgic cats are the ones who were never part of it. (El-P on “We’re Famous”)
Allow me to begin with the story of how Bazooka Tooth evolved into this writer’s favorite hip-hop album of all time. I had missed the Labor Days train two years prior, which still disappoints me, but my introduction to Ian Bavitz later came at a crucial point in both his career and my own life.
As a budding music fan, I was unable to avoid hip-hop. When I was in fifth grade, Snoop and Dre hit my television screen at least once a day. It took me well over fifteen years to realize how important (and legendarily good) “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” had been. Legions of my fellow white kids swallowed the romanticized fantasy world of gats, rims, and bitches, but I rejected it wholeheartedly. I was adequately disillusioned when Tupac died, but his music had never gotten through to me. It simply seemed insincere to me (and still does) that people who never really had to struggle for anything were coddling together sympathy for immaculately marketed thugs and “thugs.”
For the majority of middle school and high school, I avoided disappointing my mom by bringing home any CDs defaced with Tipper Gore’s two-tone ego crest. From what I recall, the first pieces of music I bought that carried the Parental Advisory tag were cassettes, The Bloodhound Gang’s One Fierce Beer Coaster (a gem of mid-90’s mookish satire) being among them. I kept dabbling in hip-hop, rap, and techno as the 90’s progressed and got weirder, but it wasn’t until I was firmly lodged in the pseudo-intellectual bubble of the four-year university that the “hip hop as sociology” puzzle began making sense.
Inspired by the buzz around this rapper’s name, I burned a CD-R of my college radio station’s promotional copy of Bazooka Tooth. Within ninety seconds into the opening/title track, Ian Bavitz’s obtuse, obscure lyrical flow and four-pack-a-day rasp had earned a new, enthusiastic fan. Despite the floodgates to content that Napster, Limewire, and the like had opened to me by age 20, I had never heard anything like the clinking and clanking nihilism of that opening track, and it still resonates.
I kept a radio-censored version of the album on steady rotation throughout my junior year of college. I was still accustomed to mainstream, professionally engineered radio edits on hip-hop songs that covered their audible tracks, but these weren’t clean and didn’t seem professionally engineered. They simply highlighted the swear words, twisting and reversing them on an ostensibly limited budget. To this day, I still imagine Skipper labeling dolls with the name of “Yiddish” rap artists prior to “tearing their still-beating hearts out of the loose-leaf carcass.” It took me a couple of years to get my hands on the original version. I was actually disappointed to hear that Aesop had in fact referred to “shitty” rap artists on “NY Electric” rather than slide in this nod to his own ambiguous Judaism (I never knew anyone with his last name and wasn’t the only one of my friends who wondered this; he was actually raised Catholic).
I had no idea that Aesop’s longer-time fans held Bazooka Tooth, with its undeniably muddled production and less-coherent lyrics (than that of his first few releases, at least) in relatively low regard, particularly next to the mind-blowing dexterity on earlier tracks like “Flash Flood” and heart-stopping storytelling of “No Regrets” (I still care deeply about Lucy, whether or not she was based on a real person). I was not the only one who liked this album, yet I was one of the few people I knew who loved this album. I saw nothing wrong with a rapper challenging his listeners with double-talk and mondegreens. Considering the post-internet, pre-social networking era that Aesop’s mid-twenties works existed in, this was not much different from David Lynch challenging his viewers with analeptic plot devices or David Foster Wallace challenging his readers with a novels’ worth of dense footnotes.
In fact, when I continue thinking on this, the Bazooka Tooth triple-LP set was the first record I ever bought new. Until that point, I was a dilettante accumulator of used vinyl for leisure and novelty. After this shiny, beautifully illustrated record broke the ice, I increasingly began taking vinyl more seriously. (Equally noteworthy, if connected more to Aesop than this particular work: When I joined Thefacebook.com in 2004, I listed “Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives” under my interests section. It stayed there for a surprisingly long time).
Anyway, that’s enough self-absorbed nostalgia from me. I included this to illustrate one of several reasons why Bazooka Tooth deserves this level of tribute, especially since I know that my story is hardly unique. This record is a difficult one to explain and (whenever necessary) defend, but there is too much insanity packed into these fifteen tracks to explain under the pretense of linear thinking. Let’s go to the tape.
Hyde heckles Jekyll and makes Hitler look cuddly. (Aesop on “Cook It Up”)
When you are white and male, society opens an extraordinary number of doors for you. This flies in the face of an irreparably shitty post-millennial job market, privatized higher education producing near-lifelong debt, and any memory of when this system you were born into was completely worth the hassle. It’s particularly unfortunate having entered the real world right as any hope of succeeding in your parents’ footsteps faded over the horizon and crumbled behind the World Trade Center, surrounding for years by people who can still smell metal in the air tonight. Regardless of when or how you fail, you get chastised if you blame anybody but your hegemony-feeding white male self. You never had to fight racism, sexism, or (necessarily) classism, so what claim do you have to a struggle?
Bazooka Tooth wasn’t my introduction to twisted, nerdy hip-hop progenitors, but to put it bluntly, it was the first time one of these weirdoes (as C-Rayz Waltz proudly declared his crew on a VHS documentary about their label) blew me away. Aesop Rock led to El-P led to Sage Francis led to me starting to actively disintegrate the prejudices I’d had against hip-hop in a whole new context. While it would be patronizing and unfair to juxtapose the “black struggle” with any type of “white struggle,” Aesop, Sage, and others illustrated that there was such a thing as the latter with increasing proficiency. It just wasn’t externally inflicted. Growing up unable to meet high expectations, being condescended to by peers and adults for being “weird” or “different,” and unable to find a comfortable medium through which to develop, aren’t tantamount to society thinking you’re a problem, a leech, or “not a real American,” but that doesn’t mean one’s life can’t objectively suck. A generation of suburban kids who had grown up thinking (for some reason) that Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan understood their frustration now had a whole new fucked up set of intellectual leaders that were nerdy, wore their damage on their sleeves, and couldn’t care less if they fit into any profession. Even the most highly trained were capable of failing and shooting forty-one shots over par. El-P and his friends decided to build their own scene, and around the time that Bazooka Tooth dropped, kids of all races who loved television and manic depression were listening.
“No bad moves allowed when you are in the public eye; kill it, you are the weakest link, goodbye.” – Aesop on “Easy”
This exposure and ground-level fame came unwelcome to an under-prepared agoraphobic who admitted that, for a stretch of his early twenties, he couldn’t leave his house without getting dizzy and falling over. Ironically, this was exactly the anti-bravado that hip-hop needed to recapture its appeal to those alienated by raw materialism, including cars that creditors had probably already repossessed from Mystikal. To even call this music “street level” would be a misnomer, as its progenitor spent much of his early twenties too much of a jittery, drooling mess to walk down any street, risking exposure to either the cameras or guns, one of which were going to shoot him to death. “Aesop Rock” was already a suitable stage name for a gifted lyricist and uncompromising personality, but now, even his pseudonym needed an alter ego into which he could safely retreat. We all made Bazooka Tooth; we’re all guilty.
Wisely, Bavitz and his cohort gave the obtuse Bazooka Tooth a few years to age before he demystified his back catalog with an official lyric booklet in 2005 with the deluxe release of the Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives EP. Reading along with these songs for the first time (and each subsequent time) brought about dozens of aural epiphanies (I’ve been listening to this record consistently for a decade without noticing the ‘Heavy Metal Parking Lot’ reference). This was particularly true in the case of tracks like “NY Electric” and “Freeze,” where Aesop’s anger over both New York’s compromised life condition and his own fame were palpable, if not completely coherent at first. Provided with the comprehensive lyric sheets, the listener was able to connect these dots, but a tangled jungle of pop-culture references still confronted them. Bavitz’s categorical obsession with comic books of his youth and obscure political scandals lent itself surprisingly well to critically dense poetry that almost transcended his formal (four-year college) education. He had already established himself as one of the most impressive MCs in independent music, but now he had proven himself one of the most confrontational lyricists, too. It came at a time when Hip-hop needed a solid set of middle fingers to flash at convention, and Aesop, Murs, El-P, Mr. Lif, and company were happy to extend them. It still surprises me to remember that Bavitz was only in his mid-twenties when he recorded Bazooka Tooth. At the time, it wasn’t so shocking to college-age kids like me, since 25-year olds had so much life experience that we lacked. The surprise is that even now that my cohort and I have surpassed that cornerstone age and then some, Aesop’s wit and perspective on songs like “Babies with Guns” and “Kill the Messenger” still sound like they come from a mind way more developed than my own.
“Ain’t it strange it’s a fad to bite your idols when the only reason you liked them was cause their shit wasn’t recycled?” – Aesop on “Frijoles”
If the blatantly unsolved murders of Biggie and Tupac sent hip-hop into a political regression of sorts, it was equally unsolved, untimely murder of Jam Master Jay that really stepped on the collective throat of Bavitz and his label mates. The violent realities of an out-of-control capitalist venture had already begun setting in by the time that Meline began burning his poetry onto vinyl in the early 90s, but it all paled in comparison to watching a pioneer fall. Run-DMC was suddenly no more, and as painful as this reality was, the slate had, in many ways, been cleared. On “Freeze” (the closest thing this album had to a single), Aesop concludes the song with a nod to Jam Master Jay’s “resurrection and second death,” which acknowledged how nobody was forever, even if your heroes’ music lived on eternally. Mizell’s October 2002 murder happened right around the moment before Hip-hop had come of age sufficiently to reflexively capitalize off its own nostalgia. Before long, a new race to the top had begun. As his label hit an arguable peak with this succession of releases by Can Ox, RJ, and Aesop, El-P didn’t waste the opportunity to remind people about where he and his progeny had won any succession of little victories as the hip-hop “industry” allowed over the turn of the century on “We’re Famous,” a very unconventional version of one of hip-hop’s great conventions (the diss track).
Nobody involved in the Def Jux process seemed content resting on any laurels. Countless rappers that Ian and Jamie had grown up watching had worked (and innovated) their asses off until earning that coveted SNL appearance, that insurmountable platinum record, and then simply got lazy. In retrospect, Bazooka Tooth was a logical step in a career for a rapper who never cared to be confined to peoples’ expectations. In the decade since, he has reunited with Blockhead (“None Shall Pass”), united with Kimya Dawson (“Uncluded”) and even, in the single most controversial move of his career, left New York for the Bay Area. The man that once thickly territorialized his domain over the five boroughs might have taken his own advice and shot himself in the foot while it was in his mouth if he honestly gave a shit what people thought. The white rapper with a Boston University diploma, dropping Suzanne Vega references during free-styles, had his mind made up. Satisfyingly, he has found ways to grow musically as well as ways to keep getting weirder; he promoted his solo album Skelethon with a web-series that featured him dragging a dead cat around a hallucinatory San Francisco. Is he trying to lovingly deconstruct his new city in the way in which he did New York? Bavitz may not be Jewish, but one could make the argument that he’s successfully evolved into hip-hop’s fucked-up take on (the positive part of) Woody Allen.
“Brinker 1-9, 9-11-01 Witness. Maybe you don’t get this.” – Aesop on “NY Electric”
(from Cryptic’s tumblr)
While hip-hop was floating relatively irrespective of the streets, Aesop Rock and his cohort were engineering hostile beats and noises on personal computers in smoke-filled apartments. Whether or not they realized it at the time, they were setting the tone for an exponentially increasing trend in bedroom-production. Additionally, their love of the music they were creating transcended their hatred of their situations, and it showed. Despite Aesop’s professed love of soaking up dialogue from films that ‘take place in other eras and other places,’ the early 2000s had locked him solidly into New York, as if there was anywhere else he could have gone. This once-invincible urban wonderland had folded to this dystopian reality where it was suddenly possible to curfew the city and shut down every block. The Big Apple has yet to regain its glory.
To New Yorkers, especially starving artists, 9/11 wasn’t the end of life as they knew it, but it did exacerbate everything that had already been shitty about their lives. “When you’re a poor person,” confined Vast Aire in the aforementioned documentary, “24 hours is like 10 years… When you’re not poor, time is leaving you. Money is everything, and that’s just sad.”
In 1961, activist and urban studies guru Jane Jacobs wrote that “Time, in cities, is the substitute for self-containment. Time, in cities, is in dispensable.” The poor urban dweller is consistently wondering where their family’s next meal is going to come from; days, hours, and minutes move slowly. Time stretches out like the poly-rhythmic, cumbersome beats on Aesop’s record. Nobody intended to let anyone dance to this joint. Why would anybody want to? On the most arguably dance-able track, “11:35,” Mr. Lif cites a poor immigrant named Jose falling to his death in an industrial grinder like something out of The Jungle or Manhattan Transfer, among other modern-day micro-tragedies, before the beat cuts to a jerky, uneven shuffle. Building upon a series of sentiments (alienation, depression, inertia, paranoia, agoraphobia), Aesop mans the production helm, mixes molasses into the aesthetic, and paints that long-overdue picture of a dystopia-tinged New York, that defeated metropolis where biggest brother’s watching bigger brother watching big brother watch you, spectral particles of the world trade center permeate the atmosphere, and in distinct corners, angry young men dig through neighbors’ garbage and shoot decrepit, sickly dogs behind barns. Fittingly, Vast Aire materializes at the end of “NY Electric” to eulogize the world where buildings fall and hopes crash.
Instead of turning this anxiety inward as he did so often and effectively on Labor Days, Aesop was now projecting these sentiments clearly across the world’s picture-in-picture widescreens and outward onto the human race (itself now an endangered species and willfully hunted by each other, including their infants). The species is ripe for a takeover at the hands of Martians, which is exactly what happens at the end of the album. Conceptually, Aesop’s fantasy of a decisive Mars victory is far-fetched, but hypothetically who could argue in favor of humans after over an hour of unflinching misanthropy?
“Every leader dead and it’s making you upset.” – Aesop on “Kill the Messenger”
There’s no way of knowing where Bazooka Tooth would have gone if Def Jux or Rhymesayers released it today. It would still have acolytes, no doubt, but who would be downloading any of the singles off iTunes or which radio stations outside of New York’s proudest independent and pirate stations would take a risk on any of it? It remains a document of a particularly triumphant era for underground hip-hop as the underground emerged, rubbing its eyes at the strobe lights and adulation. Considering how much has changed in this past decade for both Aesop, El-P, and backpacker hip-hop (if anyone even uses that term anymore), their string of timeless works under the strangest conditions is remarkable, fomenting a style of revolution that will not be apologized for.
To me, Bazooka Tooth is the strongest microcosm of this moment in time, and I know that many people (possibly even Bavitz himself) may disagree. But as the record proved [eighteen+] years ago, cryptically and consistently, we live in a world with no simple answers, and the answers that seem simple are going to fall out from beneath us when the impending end of days crushes New York along with the world that its residents believe revolves around it. In Meline’s half-joking words to an interviewer a decade ago: “You didn’t realize that we were in the middle of World War III and that we’re all gonna die soon?” Aesop Rock understood that time, his crew’s city, and even the human race were changing too fast to even recognize when he pieced this disturbed anti-masterpiece together. [Nearly two] generally painful decade[s] later, we can still take comfort in how no matter what happens, we’ve got something built if we all die tonight.
“Bazooka Tooth,” baby.
Here are my top 10 albums of 2003, for anyone interested:
The Twilight Singers – ‘Blackberry Belle’
Blur – ‘Think Tank’
Aesop Rock – ‘Bazooka Tooth’
Prefab Sprout – ‘I trawl the Megahertz’
Dizzee Rascal – ‘Boy in Da Corner’
Airbag – ‘Ensamble Cohetes’
Junior Senior – ‘D-D-Don’t Stop the Beat’
The Shins – ‘Chutes Too Narrow’
The White Stripes – ‘Elephant’
The Unicorns – ‘Who Will Cut our Hair When We’re Gone?’
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.
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).
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?