I Don't Need a Remedy
277 · 18 May 00
Elliott Smith: Figure 8
When devout Christians say they love Jesus, it makes me uneasy. I don't understand what they mean. I don't even understand what they think they mean. If they say they fear God, that makes a little more sense. Their god is judgmental and omniscient, and promises an eternity of torment to the unrepentant; the justifications for fear are clear and obvious. And perhaps, for some of them, loving Jesus is merely an extension of their fear of Hell. Jesus clarified the rules for getting into Heaven, and if you take the idea of Hell seriously, learning that there's some way to avoid it probably should instill an incapacitating relief. (The sudden abatement of terror isn't what I mean by "love", exactly, but it's been my experience that if a person actually believes in Hell, arguing with them about the definitions of other abstract concepts is like trying to cook with an unplugged Easy-Bake Oven.) More often than not, though, I can see an incendiary sincerity in their eyes. They're not just relieved, they're enraptured. Whatever it is they're feeling, it's a first-order emotion, not a reaction to something else. But what is it? Submission to confident moral authority, and thus the abdication of responsibility for making your own decisions? That's what it seems like, and I can't fathom finding that desirable or sufficient. They are certain, and I define myself by my doubts. I don't understand how you can love a story in which you yourself are the most insignificant character. But then, I also don't understand drinking, smoking, revenge, meanness, suicide, greed, corruption, jazz, hip-hop, lipstick, corporatism, racism, restaurants that don't seem to like food, or why the airlines and the cell-phone companies haven't gotten together to figure out how to let you talk on your own telephone during a plane flight, so there's a case to be made that I don't understand much, and not understanding Christians who love Jesus is an insignificant subset of my overall debilitating ignorance. I won't debate the point. I think I really understand exactly three groups of people: 1) the people who center their lives around the gnawing, irresistible hunger for comprehension, 2) the people who center their lives around their children, and 3) defeated vagrants slumped in subway alcoves. The curious, the nurturing and the lost.
The strange thing, though, and at the moment this is probably the root of my central internal struggle, is that I feel like I do understand spirituality. I believe that curiosity can be a creative energy, and that truth is something you make, not just something you catalog. I aspire to my own rapture. I flatter myself that it's more constructive and humane than glazed-eye fundamentalist zealotry, but decide for yourself: I want to learn to appreciate every virtue. I want to be able to recognize the good in anything that has any. This is not the same as wanting to love everything, in two ways. First, love is more powerful if it discriminates. Many things deserve to be liked, not loved, and eliminating your senses of proportion and perspective will only lead to poor time-management and a tendency to insult genius. And second, I do believe in evil. I do believe that there are bad things, and that the right reaction to them is informed hatred. There's a parallel column I'd write, if I had time, called Entries for a Catalogue of Evil, that would be as vitriolic and destructive as this one tries not to be. (Diatribes aren't inherently less valuable than paeans, they're just easier, and thus more often misused.) I think of the preparatory half of my life-work (and of course it sounds pretentious to admit that you think about yourself as having a life-work, but if you don't believe you have one, how do you justify not killing yourself? (so maybe I do understand suicide)) as the process of sorting through all the intriguing things I don't know much about yet, and vice versa, and dividing them into the ones with whom there is the basis for meaningful relationships, however oblique or qualified, and the ones with whom there is not. The other half is learning how to live among your truths, after you've collected them.
The first of the three people I'm moving out of my undecided pile, this week, is Geri Halliwell, whose dubious-looking autobiography I just finished reading. I still can't stand the Spice Girls' music, and I never grew any fonder of Geri's solo album, but I liked Spice World every bit as much the second time I saw it, and I loved Mel C's solo album, so I'm easily interested enough in the phenomenon to think that Geri's version of their story, told with the advantages of distance and closure, might be enlightening, even if (or perhaps because) we can't necessarily trust it. The obvious question it raises, just by its heft and the fact that Geri's name is the only one on it, is "did she write it?" There's no answer key in the back, but I read the first hundred pages, at least, as if the book was a game. On one hand, the writing style shows a suspicious familiarity with semicolons, and the journal excerpts sometimes seem a little too convenient and coherent. On the other hand, for the most part the narrative is charmingly headlong and artless, and surely a professional pop-icon ghost-writer would have known how to spell Sinéad O'Connor's last name. By the time I got to the first set of photo inserts (and yes, she includes two of her topless modeling shots, neither of which strike me as half as appalling as the shots of her as Ginger (I'm fairly sure that I've never read a book in which the words "hot pants" appear more often)), I'd stopped second-guessing. If I had to place a bet, it would be that she wrote it herself, and then got a fair amount of help from a sympathetic editor, one who thought of her job as keeping Geri's inexperience as a writer from obstructing her personality, not molding the book into any other preconceived shape. But I don't think it matters whether she literally wrote it or not, because it's so clearly her story. A cynical cash-in would never have spent so much time on Geri's life before the Spice Girls (the initial band audition takes place on the recto after the first photo insert, 150 pages into a 385-page book), would have milked her celebrity connections (especially with George Michael) for much more salacity, and certainly wouldn't have sacrificed the primary Spice Girls demographic the way If Only does. The cover is elegant and dignified, and the only mention of the Spice Girls is in the straightforwardly descriptive blurb on the inside back flap. You might expect demonizations, or voyeuristic insider revelations, but the big enthralling surprise, to me, is that Geri's book is mostly about Geri. The other girls figure in the story, of course, but with the possible exception of Mel B., they hardly qualify as characters, certainly not the way Geri and her parents do. The few times I thought I could picture a group scene it was invariably because Geri was relating an episode that was also staged in Spice World. The book is not about the Spice Girls, or even about Geri being in the Spice Girls, it's about Geri struggling with herself. It's a twenty-six-year-old girl, survivor of a famous ordeal, trying to write down what it was like (to her, not to us), and what she learned from it. The morals are predictable, and architecture of the story is simplistic and arguably literarily inept, but the telling is a triumph. I said once that if the Spice Girls would learn to play instruments, I'd be their biggest fan. They haven't (I don't think Geri so much as alludes to anybody in their studio or touring bands, although there is one tantalizing aside, towards the end, in which she claims to own an acoustic guitar and have been taking lessons), but writing this book is even better, better in a way it would never have occurred to me to hope for. I've been thinking of the Spice Girls as bad pop and good cartoons with the potential to be good pop and good cartoons, and perhaps eventually just good pop, but Geri has written a compelling explanation of why it's better still to simply be a person. Plot differences notwithstanding, this is the book that after reading Bitch, I wished Prozac Nation had been. I'm not sure I believe that it will reach the people who need it most, the young girls who share Geri's tenuous self-image, because in writing it Geri has stepped outside of the mythology, and that's exactly what's so hard. She's made herself into a role model, after all, but now we have to convince a numbed, deluded culture that this is what role models look like, that heroines should be human beings, not self-propelled Pokemon. Endings are always beginnings, but rarely as explicitly as the end of If Only. It's October, 1998, and last night Geri sang "Happy Birthday" to Prince Charles. She's been in one of the biggest pop groups of all time, but her mom is cheerfully cutting out newspaper stories like Geri has just appeared in her first school play. The epilogue (and for once I was pleased that a book ended with the author's recollection of the decision to write it) concludes two weeks before her first solo single comes out. And there is the most awe-inspiring demonstration of courage. It would have been so easy to write this book at fifty. Everything is instructive in hindsight, once you know what it turned out you learned. But you have to be twenty-six at twenty-six. Life's greatest challenge is making sense of it as you go, and you take the biggest risk of all when you admit what you believe before you're proven right or wrong. Schizophonic is part of the same self-examination as If Only, constructed in parallel, so it's fitting that I didn't think the record resolved anything. "There will always be something left unsaid or undone", Geri realizes on the last page. I believe she's done a great thing, and there are greater things ahead of her. And that's how you have to live, certain that all of this is nothing, that whatever you've done so far is little more than preparation for what you'll do next.
And although it's a long way from the Spice Girls to Elliott Smith (never longer than during Elliott's one attempt to get up in front of millions of people in a white suit), for me they teach the same lesson. I bought Either/Or and XO, but never learned to like either of them. The songwriting seemed uninspired, the performances spiritless, and I was nagged by the suspicion that he didn't know anything I wanted to learn. There were some pretty moments, but they only made me wonder why I wasn't listening to my old Simon & Garfunkel records instead. But Belle and Sebastian songs used to make me wonder why I wasn't listening to Nick Drake, and if I could change my mind about one, maybe the other. Plus, early copies of this album came with a bonus disc. The bonus disc has two demos of XO songs ("Bottle Up & Explode" and "Waltz #1") and two more newer home recordings (the Juliana Hatfield-ish "Some (Rock) Song" and the quick, raspy, faintly Tommy Keene-like "The Enemy Is You"), but it was a while before I got around to listening to it, as the album itself had swept all my reservations away by the end of the third song. "Son of Sam", the opener, bears a familial resemblance to the earlier albums, but adds a breathtaking pop expansiveness, as if Elliott always wanted to sound like Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, and finally figured out how. "Somebody I Used to Know" is sparer, just a couple acoustic guitars and Elliott's fragile voice, but for once the Simon & Garfunkel comparison seems like a compliment. He taps on the body of one of the guitars for rhythm, and both his vocal melody and the second guitar twirl and flutter with discernible enthusiasm, the whole short song coming off something like a introvert's attempt at "Cecilia". The full transformation, however, doesn't arrive until "Junk Bond Trader", the third track, when striding piano, a "Bigmouth Strikes Again"-ish guitar whine, quiet string surges and Pete Thomas' bouncy drums join in to build a protest song against insincerity. The notoriety of Either/Or and XO seemed contextual, to me, a product of stylistic coincidence and evanescent critical favor, but I can imagine "Junk Bond Trader" out-living all of us, a new rock standard and as compelling a summary of the legacy of clear-headed ultra-melodic turn-of-the-century adult pop as anything Aimee, Michael, Difford, Tilbrook, Neil Finn, Jules Shear, Andy Partridge or Jon Brion was actually involved in. "Your world's no wider than your hatred of his", Elliott points out somewhere in the middle, which is exactly why good protest songs digress and surviving an ordeal isn't enough. The best answers are always bigger than their questions.
"Everything Reminds Me of Her" is breathy and sedate, and this is where the older albums would have lost me. The vocal treatment is too intimate, the microphones straining to construe a whisper as performance. The melody sounds like slow-motion Steely Dan, the lyrics droop inelegantly, and I'm left wondering if this is how Trembling Blue Stars songs would come out if Bob Wratten suffered from chronic migraines instead of romantic melancholy. Just as I'm about to write this one off, though, the end of "I gotta hear the same sermon all the time now / From you people" wriggles unexpectedly, suggesting that I've overlooked its life-force. So I follow "Everything Means Nothing to Me" a little more closely. The piano is sad and stately, the ascending scales that serve as choruses disappointingly blocky, but in the second half the accompaniment rebels, pushing the song towards "Let It Be". It falls short, but I'm left on edge, expecting something, and "LA" delivers it, another fond, sturdy rock strut, spiraling Brion-esque guitar leads and splashy drums spun around a twangy framework that could probably have supported Matthew Sweet or the Eagles with equal confidence. "If patience started a band / I'd be her biggest fan", Elliott insists, and I think maybe we just had metabolism incompatibilities before this, and I was listening with the wrong heart rate. "In the Lost and Found" is clanging and awkward, as if it was meant to sound like Michael Penn but somebody convinced Elliott that a player-piano would be just as eerie as a chamberlain, but the prom-waltz "Stupidity Tries" sounds like Michael, Aimee and a full orchestra trying to do a blues-vamp update of "Hopelessly Devoted to You". My capitulation becomes complete, I think, during the quiet "Easy Way Out", when I realize that the humming cello can't explain why this song seems pure and uncluttered, to me, despite having essentially the same structure as "Miss Misery", which struck me as insubstantial. "It's all about / Taking the easy way out" isn't much of a chorus, but he tacks on "I suppose" at the end of it, and I'm drawn to his doubt. In the last verse, generic finally begins to resolve into specific, and a few drops leak through of what might be vitriol: "I heard you found another audience to bore, / A creative thinker who imagined you were more, / A new body for you to push around and pose". It sounds sadistic to say that this song takes a turn for the better when it goes from sounding like an indifferent writer imagining pain to a wounded writer remembering it, but that's kind of how art works. We can imagine pain ourselves; we need artists to tell us all the ways in which it's nothing like we suppose.
After that, for me, the rest of the album plays out like an extended epilogue, confirmation of my acceptance. "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud?" sounds like matte-finish Jellyfish or a living-room demo to be later fleshed out into the Moody Blues. "Color Bars" bounces slyly, torn between spaghetti-western and Charlie Brown. "Happiness" has Bachelor No. 2's production, but Jason Falkner's ambition. Angelic ahhs buoy the dreamy "Pretty Mary K". "I Better Be Quiet Now" could be Elliott's version of Scott Miller's "I've got some quiet to say / And I'm not sure I know / How to get out of its way", Elliott's a hundred times sadder because there's no Kristine to listen to his quiet. "Can't Make a Sound" sinks farther into silence, and "Bye", the billowy exit music, has no words at all. I'm as far from certain as ever, listening to the way this album dies, that Elliott and I answer important questions the same way, but I've started to care. Like Geri, either he's found a way to describe the overlap between his problems and mine, between our angers, and between, however implicitly, our joys, or else I've found a way to hear it. One by one, my mythology empties of costumed rabbits and fills with people; at what point does it cease being mythology at all?
eels: Daisies of the Galaxy
First I notice that my second and third reluctant conversions of the week have strong musical similarities. Then I notice that both CDs come in digipacks. Then, peering at the digipack spines, I realize that the two albums are on the same label. It's a good thing I didn't notice the label first, because it's DreamWorks, whose movies I have so reliably hated that if I were more alert I might have rejected their music on principle. Indeed, looking over their artist roster I find that it contains nobody else I like, but neither does it feature anybody whose music seems to me to be plagued by terminal systemic idiocy like Antz, Deep Impact and In Dreams (my grounds for nominating DreamWorks as the world's worst production company, unless you tell me that Lost in Space, The Avengers and Gloria shared backers). I don't personally care for Powerman 5000 or the Long Beach Dub Allstars, but they're hardly the Forces of Nature or Small Soldiers of music. DreamWorks only picked up Elliott Smith after Good Will Hunting, but they took a chance on Mark Oliver Everett when all his catalog contained were two commercially underwhelming albums as E, so let's give them some credit for risk-taking. With their promotional energy behind it, "Novocaine for the Soul", the lead single from Beautiful Freak, the first eels album, did well enough, but marketing the blunt mortality epic Electro-Shock Blues would have been a grim exercise. Daisies of the Galaxy has a lot more potential. "Grace Kelly Blues" and "Packing Blankets", which sound rather strangely like the same song with two different sets of lyrics, have a muted New-Orleans-funeral-march grandeur, like Randy Newman playing old Dire Straits songs. The processing and cyclicality of the clattering, organ-driven "The Sound of Fear" make it sound like it was built out of jazz samples, à la Us3, but it ends up closer to a Muppets pastiche of the Animals than hip-hop fusion. "I Like Birds" could be They Might Be Giants on a day when a total lack of surreal detail seems like the wildest surrealism, but the mournful, string-backed "Daisies of the Galaxy" is tiny lullaby of reassurance, and the choppy, menacing "Flyswatter" begs to have a modern-dance routine set to it. "It's a Motherfucker" takes a deadpan piano-and-symphony ballad and gives it the simplest possible text of loss ("It's a motherfucker / Being here without you"; make sure you don't get the version of this album without the parental warning sticker, as it replaces "motherfucker" with "monstertrucker", which is funnier, in about the same way that Silkwood would be funnier if the radiation just made Meryl Streep's underwear pink), as if poetry is beyond him in this state, and for a moment I can't think how cultivated eloquence could ever make an idea more poignant.
The credits insist that the slow sound-collage "Estate Sale" begins "side two", which I think is Mark's way of explaining that the two halves of the record complete independent arcs. "Tiger in My Tank" is the second set's sunny, twittering, TMBG-esque pop song. "A Daisy Through Concrete" grumbles cheerfully, perhaps two parts Aimee Mann and one Anton Barbeau. "Jeannie's Diary" is melodramatic pop as unreserved as anything Randy Newman wrote for Toy Story. The shimmery "Wooden Nickels" shares Elliott Smith's affinity for Bridge Over Troubled Water-era Simon & Garfunkel.
This time, though, the three songs that win me over for good come at the end. The narrator of "Something Is Sacred" catches my attention by seeing himself in some homeless people under a bridge. Literally speaking, it's pretty unlikely that I'll ever end up homeless (at least, not without a lot of you for company), but what I empathize with is the suspicion that my life would not degrade gracefully. The less you care about, the harder you are to hurt. I care about a lot of things. If you took half of them away, and gave me the choice of becoming somebody who cares about only half as many things, or simply collapsing, I worry that I'd collapse. This is a form of egotism, admittedly, believing that I am so committed to my values that I would cease to exist before I'd relinquish them; possibly we'd find that my survival instinct is stronger than my moral code, when tested, and I'd shed beliefs effortlessly, but it's more life-affirming to think I wouldn't, and hopefully we'll never find out for sure. "Selective Memory" is side two's counterpart to "It's a Motherfucker", the lulling falsetto verses giving way, bracingly, to Mark's normal voice on the chorus. "I wish I could remember", he says, combing through his past for moments of peace, "But my selective memory / Won't let me". I think this is, in fact, his best survival mechanism. If he could lose himself in better times, he would have lost himself. "Pick one day you want to live over and over", the fable prods us, but Nietzsche's ghost is muttering something in our ear about living every day as if you were going to live it over and over, and we can't concentrate. Evolution selects for flawed memory, because it forces us to keep having experiences. And "Mr. E's Beautiful Blues", the unlisted final track, restates this point in music, half galloping, half soaring through an open-hearted, unapologetic pop song that evokes Warren Zevon and Prince and Beck and Brian Dewan, leaving me thinking that the other fourteen songs were hazy dreams of this one, that I can start forgetting everything Aimee and Michael and Elliott and Mark have written, right now, because pop has a hundred levels of perfection we've not yet even glimpsed.
But although all those things are parts of why I like Daisies of the Galaxy, they aren't the components of the lesson I think I've learned. The lesson I've learned is that this is a good and moving album, to me, but it should have been more. I should have followed Mark from the beginning, should have lived through the deaths in his family around which Electro-Shock Blues revolved, and then I would have been prepared to hear Daisies of the Galaxy correctly, as a rebirth, as a cautious reconstruction of the argument in favor of living. I heard the ending first, and as a result I can never inhabit the whole story. I can't play Electro-Shock Blues and not know whether Mark would outlive it. I can't have the kind of experience, with these records, that I've had with Low, Talk Talk, Aube, Kate, Tori, Everclear, the Posies, Manic Street Preachers, Runrig, David Steinhart or Billy Bragg, or that I still expect to have with Jewel, Patty Griffin, barcelona, Lincolnville or the Sheila Divine. I've lived all the way through enough stories to recognize what I've missed in this one. This is why, too, it seems tragic to me that we don't all marry childhood sweethearts. We merge stories, when we meet, and the less we know of each other (from experience, not primers) the less tightly we can weave ourselves together. We've built a society that does nothing more efficiently than pull us apart, offering us an infinite array of other things to love, instead of each other. Stories are how we resist. We write down our stories, in songs and books and letters like mine to you, not because it matters how my ankle is recovering or why Geri left the group, or because they paraphrase the days we've filled, we write down stories (ours and others') in the dual hopes that we will forget enough of our pasts for them to no longer satisfy us, and that someday somebody will be sad to have missed them. We will show them these stories, not because the stories say what happened, or why, but because hidden in the truths we know are all the things of which we're vividly unaware, all the revelations and disillusionments that for ten more minutes haven't touched us yet and thus define us, every great thing we have not yet learned to love, everything we dream of, perfectly, in the last instant before we find out why it can never be enough.