Tyler’s Favorite Albums (1998): The Afghan Whigs – ‘1965’

“[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. 

Columbia Records Promotional still from 1965 era (photo by Marina Chavez)

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.

Tyler’s Favorite Albums (1985): The Replacements – ‘Tim’

“Crack up in the sun / Lose it in the shade.”

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 Replacements in 1985 (image from JConnelly72 on Reddit)

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? 

Downtown MPLS, Fall 2017 (Photo by Tyler S. for SonicGeography.com)

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).

  1. The Replacements – ‘Tim’
  2. Gray Matter – ‘Food for Thought’
  3. Prefab Sprout – ‘Steve McQueen’
  4. Tom Waits – ‘Rain Dogs’
  5. The Jesus & Mary Chain – ‘Psychocandy’
  6. Berurier Noir – ‘Concerto Pour Detraques’
  7. Dead Milkmen – ‘Big Lizard in my Backyard’
  8. Husker Du – ‘Flip Your Wig’
  9. Husker Du – ‘New Day Rising’
  10. RUN-DMC – ‘King of Rock’

The Spinto Band and Blog-Rock Nostalgia

The other day, I posted a picture of the Spinto Band’s 2005 album Nice and Nicely Done on Instagram, along with a photo of my ticket stub and handbill from a gig they played at the Knitting Factory in late 2004. The band’s founding guitarist/songwriter Nick Krill commented to thank me. That gig was truly a game-changer for me, so I decided to share the images here, with a little backstory.

The Spinto Band were started in Delaware in the mid-90’s by the titular Roy Spinto’s grandson Nick Krill and a group of friends (including two sets of brothers). At the end of the 90’s, two members of the band, Jon Eaton and Albert Birney, left to attend college in Syracuse. It was there that I made their acquaintance through a group of creative older friends, three of whom started the Perry Bible Fellowship. Those were strange and wonderful times. I had several chances to see the Spinto Band play small venues in Western New York, including Planet 505 (which will garner several mentions on this site in the coming months), but somehow, I never saw the band perform until converging on a show in Tribeca’s Knitting Factory on December 21, 2004. See the flyer and ticket stub (above), noting that the headliners were technically Hijack Jupiter, another band composed of Syracuse friends who organized and promoted the show. Anyway, the Spinto Band’s set that night remains one of the ten (give or take) best live sets I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if it was the cold-outside/sweaty-inside juxtaposition of the Knitting Factory’s basement, how recently I had turned 21 (it may have been my first time in NYC since I had), or the band’s no-holds-barred DMX adaptation^, but the whole thing melted my brain in the best way imaginable. Thankfully, some evidence still exists on Flickr of how the night ended:

spinto band
The Spinto Band ending the evening at the Knitting Factory, December 21, 2004. Photo by Toni Sheppard (Flickr).

Now that I’m somewhat far removed from that moment, I can gaze back through the inevitable multivariate filter of hindsight, critical media geographies, and just simply getting old. The mid-2000’s “boom” in mass-visibility of millennial culture and viability of the now extremely dated (at least in nomenclature) genre of blog-rock is starting to retreat off the pale of our rearview mirrors, so look forward to plenty of essays like this one explaining just what the hell blog-rock even was. Some artists I affiliate with that era built long and successful mainstream careers over the 2000’s, even flirting with celebrity (e.g. Death Cab for Cutie, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Arcade Fire, and Vampire Weekend, in rough order). Others got “the bump” from websites like Pitchfork and other hype factories that pretended to not know (or, just didn’t care) how much power and influence they held – a viable canary-in-the-coalmine for what would happen with Twitter, Facebook, and all of the latter’s holdings in the 2010’s. Some of these ‘others’ were perfectly decent to me (e.g. Wolf Parade, Tapes n’ Tapes, !!!), but didn’t enjoy the same enduring level mainstream appeal.

Then again, over the prior three decades, consolidating media conglomerates had mixed up a generous cocktail of deregulation, privateering, and conduit expansion (i.e. perpetually speeding-up internet) and snuffed out any semblance of whatever ‘monoculture’ the blog-rockers had been born into. Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, whose book Irony and Outrage I’ve been reading recently, dedicates a chapter to this shift across the Reagan-Bush-Clinton administrations, all of whom were preoccupied with the horribly misguided promise of deregulating media ownership. Though not a media geographer, Young expertly points out the geographic dysmorphia with a quote by former Washington Post editors Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser, who “see this dire situation as the result of corporate motives prevailing unchecked across the media landscape” (p. 39):

“Most newspapers, television networks, and local television and radio stations now belong to giant, publicly owned corporations far removed from the communities they serve. They face the unrelenting quarterly profit pressures from Wall Street now typical of American capitalism” (2002, quoted in Young 2020, emphasis mine).

This sticks with me for several reasons, not the least of which being how I came of age across the millennial divide, when we were suddenly all expected to want to live in Brooklyn or Silver Lake. Everyone in “ad world” was suddenly a hipster. The great promise that the internet would help music scenes transcend place, thereby rendering geography inessential, had fizzled. I can only speak for myself here, but this felt strange, considering how the pre-internet era of my youth had been dragging the journalists to all corners of the country less than a decade prior. Even worse, my generational tags, which had been “Gen Y,” “The Pepsi Generation,” and “the MTV Generation” for my entire life, were slowly being replaced with “millennial,” which was (to me, anyway) condescending shorthand for somebody who didn’t remember life before the internet. At the time, I was walking up and down Columbia Road NW in DC, listening to The National’s Boxer like every good Gen-X dork, fairly oblivious to all of this, but in retrospect I’m pretty pissed, honestly.

Strangely, but not shockingly, the heated conversations my punk-loving friends and I had in high school about “selling out” were fading from relevance. I may have cited this following passage here before, but Ronen Givony’s concluding manifest about Jawbreaker in his 33 1/3 volume about 24 Hour Revenge Therapy bears repeating:

“Maybe this is a symptom of the general passivity and quietism of always-online American life in the twenty-first century; or maybe it’s just another example of settled debates, bygone values, and obsolete terms… In a time when almost no one still buys albums, and tens of thousands of streams will earn a band pennies, the reasoning goes, artists deserve to get paid any way they can manage, and rightly so. Who are we to blame them if the only people still paying musicians their true worth are corporate advertising and branding companies? It’s a difficult claim with which to argue, which is why almost no one ever still does.”

I reached out to Krill to see if he remembered that era in any similar light, since he spent much of that time touring internationally with the Spinto Band. For example, they did a run of opening slots for the Arctic Monkeys when Alex Turner and Co. were barely into their twenties and riding an an unconscionable wave of hype around “I Bet that You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” They toured the UK with other acts on Bar/None Records (the Hoboken label that gave the world the first two brilliant They Might Be Giants records). Even “Oh Mandy,” a single off of Nice and Nicely Done (that may have been inspired by Mandy Moore; reports vary) appeared in at least one national ad campaign. Guitarist Jon Eaton called into my Georgetown radio show in 2008* when they released the “Summer Grof” single and their second album Moonwink, telling me about said UK shows as well as Spanish festivals like the brief-lived Summercase.

I always felt like the Spinto Band were in as a good a position as any to epitomize the highwater mark of “blog rock,” but the term doesn’t hold much of a meaning to Krill these days, and he has no recollection of it meaning much to him and his bandmates 15 years ago, either. He does remember, though, feeling expected frustration with the new music media landscape.

“[Around the mid-2000’s,] I do remember being a little peeved that if a record didn’t get a ‘Best New Music’ shout out, it could kinda get immediately lost in the noise,” he recently told me, referencing Pitchfork’s ostensibly career-making designation given to albums ranked higher than 8.0 on a 10-point scale. Years of continued service to indie rock, however, have endowed Krill with retrospective wisdom one would expect from a seasoned veteran.

“The more time I’ve spent in the music business, the more I realize that it really is a lot down to the hard work of an artist and the team they assemble around themselves,” he wrote. “Someone can shine a spot light on an artist, but that only can do so much. Artists that persist and make a career out of that initial attention truly have a vision for their work, and the work ethic to create amazing music and not stop until it is great.”

Nick Krill mixing a recording (photo via his website).

Today, Krill is still highly active as a producer and engineer, working with bands like The War on Drugs, Dr. Dog, and the aforementioned Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. As he put it, SoundCloud and Bandcamp are, in essence, a continuation of the function blogs served as a way for people to “scratch around and hunt for new tunes.”

I can’t help but agree, considering how much music still resides on my hard drive that I discovered via blogs during my downtime at various office jobs (prior to what Aesop Dekker termed “the great file sharing holocaust” a decade ago). There are still a few blogs I punch into my search bar on occasion simply to check in, not particularly expecting their proprietors to have picked the lock, cleared the cobwebs, and lurched the weathered, rusty machinery back to life.

The so-called “vinyl resurgence,” which had been going on for a solid half-decade before most any major media outlet noticed it, is even more salient considering how much digital music has been buried in the past 25 years. Hell, half of the music I bought from touring DIY bands at the time were on CDr’s they probably burned at 48x. My personal laptop doesn’t even have a built-in disc drive. Givony’s quote referencing how relatively few people buy music anymore does carry some weight, but our relationship with music has always changed depending on way which we discovered it, not just relegated to the digital era.

Given how much love, documentation, and reinterpretation Millennial pop has been getting of late, we are dangerously close to full-on 2000’s nostalgia. It may well already be here (don’t be stingy with case studies in the comments, if there’s anything I’m missing). Hopefully, the Spinto Band will be able to reap some of those spoils, whatever that may mean in the 2020s.

Thanks for reading.

“Your work looks good / Your look works great”

^According to Krill, this was a rap song the group wrote in high school that they performed whenever Albert Birney, who left the band in 2003, made it to a gig. I’m grateful he was there that night.

*If I ever locate this interview, I’ll plan to append it to this post.

My #NotbyREM Song Challenge Results

I had a lot of fun writing this one, and it also influenced me to revisit REM’s early and mid-era catalog on vinyl, which is always enjoyable. I had overlooked the second side of Murmur for so long! Anyway, here are my song choices from this month’s challenge. The matrix, for reference:

NotByREMSongChallenge

  1. Worriers – “End of the World” (song of 2020)
  2. The Aquabats – “Pool Party” (it was a cool party)
  3. Cee-Lo Green – “The Art of Noise”
  4. Pinback – “How We Breathe”
  5. Herbie Hancock – “Chameleon”
  6. Common – “The Corner (feat. The Last Poets)”
  7. Jessie Ware – “Spotlight”
  8. Mrs. Magician – “There is No God”
  9. Def Leppard – “Stand Up (Kick Love Into Motion)”
  10. Frodus – “The Day Buildings Mysteriously Vanished”
  11. Prefab Sprout – “Moving the River”
  12. Dan Deacon – “Wham City”
  13. Andrew W.K. – “I Get Wet”
  14. Travis – “Flowers in the Window”
  15. Goldfinger – “Superman”
  16. Grandaddy – “El Caminos in the West”
  17. The Dead Milkmen – “Watching Scotty Die”
  18. Orange Juice – “Falling and Laughing”
  19. The Ramones – “Howling at the Moon (Sha-La-La)”
  20. Meat Loaf – “Everything Louder than Everything Else”
  21. Snapcase – “Bleeding Orange”
  22. LL Cool J – “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”
  23. Sick of It All – “Clobberin’ Time”
  24. Buzzcocks – “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”
  25. Deftones – “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)”
  26. The Replacement – “A Little Mascara”
  27. Cock Sparrer – “Working”
  28. Sunny Day Real Estate – “In Circles”
  29. Husker Du – “I Apologize”
  30. Ruth – “Polaroid Romain Photo”

Because I can’t stop won’t stop (procrastinating), you’re all getting a challenge for September, too. I am going to try to keep grinding one out for every month the US is in “quarantine” due to COVID, so you can all look forward to another year or so of these!

[cue bitter sobbing]

Anyway, tune in tomorrow at 9AM Eastern for that, and don’t forget to tell a friend or two or however many the Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram algorithms allow to see your posts (probably around 2).

Your Sonic Sunday: May 17th (Punk Scholars, Jangle Pop, and Hardcore)

Happy Sunday! I have a few music documentaries to recommend (which are streaming, for free, on YouTube as of this posting), but first a couple of announcements about things near and dear to me.

First, per Dr. Matt Grimes, the Punk Scholars Network website is up and updated! For those keeping track, I published an article in the connected journal Punk & Post-Punk a couple years ago ahead of Capitals of Punk, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with this consortium more in the future. For now, take a gander at what they’ve been up to lately, and who makes up their team.

a2570743017_10Second, while working on the Sonic Geography Song Challenge, I’ve inadvertently discovered that Mark Mulcahy put the entire Miracle Legion discography up on Bandcamp (the second-best website on the internet, behind Cinema Treasures). For my fellow 90’s kids who remember the beautiful show The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Polaris were, ostensibly, a massaged iteration of Miracle Legion. Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb have said that Miracle Legion’s 1985 EP The Backyard directly informed the aesthetic of the show, and it makes perfect sense.

Under the “Hey! Free Viewings!” category: Lance Bangs made this appropriately slow-burn documentary about Slint’s 1991 masterpiece Spiderland, and it’s available to watch here. He does a good job pulling from his own super-fandom of the mystery that surrounded albums like this before the internet, as well as the fascinating little world of Louisville, Kentucky.

maxresdefaultDrew Stone has been breaking his back for a long time to not only keep the spirit of New York Hardcore (or as it’s properly pronounce “N’Yuk Hahdcowa”) alive through shows he organizes in Brooklyn, but hosting numerous live-streams with NYHC figures. I caught this one with Lou Koller, the singer of one of my favorite bands Sick of It All, and as I may have said on twitter, it felt like a warm embrace. Stone’s “The NYHC Chronicles” documentary (stream-able here) digs deep into that universe, and I recommend it. Also, somehow, Walter Schriefels does. not. age.

the-jane-projectSpeaking of hardcore (just a bit further North), every time I have the privilege of introducing someone to Converge’s 2001 masterpiece Jane Doe, I get excited about the record all over again. While traversing the algorithm for those previously mentioned videos, I found this video of Kurt Ballou talking about the album to a class at the Berklee College of Music in the band’s native Boston. As an academic who thinks Jane Doe deserves every bit as much respect as any other piece of critically-coveted “art music” of the past two decades, it’s always gratifying to see Converge getting that kind of institutional validation (not that they need it). Over the past couple of years, I’ve had an epiphany: Converge may be the greatest band in Boston history. Sit on that one, and tell whether you agree that there may be weight to that argument.

The Big Star Paradox

Alex Chilton died ten years ago today at age 59. Here are some words about what he and three other Memphians accomplished in their twenties with a little help from their friends.

Big Star Photograph © Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien Photo (C-heads)

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Radio City, the second (and arguably last) Big Star album. It’s my favorite thing they ever released, and it had me thinking: it’s almost paradoxical how beloved Big Star are. I find it impossible to parse whether Big Star were great because they were unsuccessful in their time. Would it cloud our cultural judgment if “Back of a Car” or “The Ballad of El Goodo” were on the same level of incalculable impact on Western society as the Beatles, Elton John, or Queen? If any of those three artists had been relegated to Big Star’s niche of history, would their music be so lionized? I understand that those are three imperfect examples, but no perfect examples exist. Had the Beach Boys not been in the right time-place when they changed their name from the Pendletons and hopped aboard the surf craze, would whatever they would have created in that alternate timeline (certainly nothing on par with Pet Sounds) possess such heavy caché today?

To add another layer to the paradox, Alex Chilton was a household name to baby boomers. When he died, a majority of the outlets I saw mentioned “The Letter” in their tributes, relegating Big Star – not to mention his influence on the late-70’s New York punk scene and his iconoclastic songsmithery throughout the 80’s – well beneath the fold. But, as the party line reads, Chilton’s decision to join Big Star was informed by feeling washed up by the time he was 20. He wasn’t the only teenybopper who pivoted into an artistic legend, but he managed to occupy such a unique space in both categories; millions more have heard the Box Tops, yet his unsuccessful second act has changed the world almost in spite of itself.

What these layers all reinforce was that Big Star were a generational band. They wouldn’t have reached the heights they did if Alex Chilton weren’t burned out by pop fame by age 18, nor would their songs be such a testament to the power of Memphis if they had blown up and transcended their hometown. One of my favorite anecdotes from Rob Jovanovich’s biography of the band was when a few North Carolina college nerds (who would eventually become the dB’s) took a pilgrimage to Memphis in the mid-70’s and found a despondent Chris Bell working at a fast food restaurant. They talked him into accompanying them to Ardent Studios for a meeting with Chilton. Within minutes, they could tell how little Bell wanted to be there.

I am not entirely sure why that anecdote stuck with me more than anything else from the book, especially since it puts such a tragic din on #1 Record. The album was a legendary flop, and Bell and Chilton grew apart almost immediately as a result. It was the most important thing in the world to the dB’s, but it was barely a footnote in the lives of the people who made it. This recalls what Chuck Klosterman wrote about a Guns n’ Roses cover band in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: “Paradise City care more about Guns n’ Roses than the original members of Guns n’ Roses care about the song ‘Paradise City.'” It also recalls an interview with Slash I recall seeing a little over ten years ago (perhaps with Larry King, as outlandish as that may seem), where Slash didn’t dodge a question about GnR reuniting but rather gave a perfectly straightforward answer: he and Axl just weren’t interested in trying to recreate the proverbial “that.” It struck me as surprising, since everything I’d heard since 1996 suggested that he and Bill Bailey hated one another. Whether or not they did share antipathy was immaterial; they had moved on, even if their fans hadn’t.

I suppose therein lies another layer to the Big Star paradox: speaking personally, I appreciate the ability to see that meaning-making at work from the level of the fans of an obscure band, rather than the insanely popular band curating their legacy, sometimes bitterly. The former is endearing, and the latter is usually uncomfortable. Thankfully, everything I’ve seen Jody Stephens (the one surviving Big Star member) curate has done nothing to tarnish the band’s legacy. It may owe a lot to the fact that he still lives in Memphis, keeps his drum kit at Ardent, and has no delusions of grandeur.

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Jody Stephens’ drum kit at Ardent Studios (Memphis, TN), July 2011

I felt the need to write all of this because (1) Big Star formulate a key part of any curriculum I compose about the strange (after)life of American Popular Culture, and (2) it’s a question for which I genuinely want to get other music fans’ perspectives. The Big Star Paradox dictates that it’s impossible to judge the band solely on their music in 2020, but no amount of post-whateverist academic thought changes the fact that I nearly cry whenever I hear “What’s Going Ahn.” Whether or not Big Star had ever become famous in their time, nothing can change how their music was just so, so, so, SO good. RIP Alex Chilton, ten years gone today, as well as to my fellow UTK attendee Andy Hummel, who died on July 19 of that same year.

Sonic Sunday Clips 01.26.20 (MLK, Istanbul, and Stars)

Happy Sunday. I’ve got about 3 new posts brewing at the moment, but returning to a regularly scheduled life has been my first priority of late. I’ll get those out soon, though. For now, here are a few things of interest from this week.

  • Derek Alderman on MLK Streets
    My friend and former PhD Adviser Dr. Derek Alderman has made yet another major news appearance talking about the geographic legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Obviously, this segment aired last Monday on ESPN. Derek shows up at 2:02, right after RFK announces MLK’s assassination.
  • History of Geography & Gender Conference, Istanbul
    This conference in August looks great, and it’s in Istanbul, too. Easily in one of my top ten cities yet-to-visit. Either way, if you’re able, drop a submission, and even see if you qualify for one of their paper awards.

Here is your weekly affirmation: a teenage choir from Vancouver that covers of Canadian indie rock anthems. This one may be my favorite.

 

Michael Seman on Music Geography

From UNT website.

I felt a good return to music on this blog was in order, mainly because I’ve got some more antique postcard news in the works. I was very fortunate to meet and work with Michael Seman, a musical geographer based in Denton, TX (we did talk briefly about the Mountain Goats song and the Marked Men, don’t worry), at the AAG Meeting in Los Angeles last year. This morning, I got an email from a collaborator saying that Mike had been interviewed for the Washington Post! Not a bad spot to land.

You can read the whole interview here, or check in on writer Danielle Paquette‘s story about Omaha’s use of indie rock to revitalize it’s urban neighborhoods right here, but here are a couple of Seman’s quotes that I thought were pretty to-the-point about what Music Geography does, and why it’s important.

[Music Geography is] the examination of music and how it interacts with the people, economy, built environment, and technology that comprises a certain space or place.

Music, like food, offers a lot of insight into how landscapes develop and how they might continue to do so in the future… Music scenes can act as branding agents, spur urban redevelopment and emerge as industries in their own right. I’ve also found that music scene participants are civic-minded and often become involved in philanthropic pursuits, run for political office, and seek employment in city departments.

More updates coming soon. Check out Michael’s work for more background on the interaction between music and public places. I’m no doubt going to be citing a lot of them in the future.

For now, time to dive back into teaching and formulating my own papers to present this year. It’s been so busy that I feel like first I have to…. well, The Marked Men can probably say it better than I could.

DC Will Do That To You (Part 1)

The sunrise over Mt. Pleasant.

Sunrise over Mt. Pleasant, Thursday March 20.

Prior to last week, I had not been in Washington, D.C. (for more than a layover) since August of 2012. I have always thought hard about what to write on this site about the DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia, for the outsiders), but the right words have never really come to mind. I’ve gone on record repeatedly in several contexts that I’m a firm believer that “D.C. makes; the world takes.” Take a look at the last three decades of punk and alternative music history.

In the past few days since returning to Knoxville, my conversations about the city with people who’ve clearly spent little time there begs the question of how the Capital City has inspired so many different and divergent public perceptions of it. Many (way too many) people associate it with the Federal Government for obvious reasons. The Reagan-overlorded crack era of the 1980’s and the District’s difficult reputation simply won’t go away. In each of my conversations about it, the other person has admitted having misconceptions about it.

This photo has no real bearing to this post, but I wanted to take this opportunity to plug my favorite bookstore in the world.

This photo has no real bearing on this post, but I wanted to take the opportunity to plug my favorite bookstore in the world.

Despite having lived there for six pivotal years, my own opinions about DC are equally fueled by public (mis)conceptions and (sub)cultural ideals as they were from my actual days wandering up 18th Street to Smash! and Crooked Beat Records on payday, sitting on my Arlington front porch watching an early summer storm roll across the sky, and squeezing my way through the city’s overcrowded Metro.

I’ve got a few mammoth posts in the pipeline about D.C. I’m sure, but this will have to do for now. It’s been that kind of a week, and the afterglow of being back in such a hyper-inflated city that I gave so much of my life to has left me in such a strange state of introspection. But then again….

“D.C. Will Do That To You”