The Rest of Your Life
459 · 13 November 03
The first major step in my great divestiture of unnecessary objects, inspired by but not really a function of my fiancée's imminent moving-in, took place this weekend when some puzzled-looking kids from WZBC came to take away the 85% of my previously-irreducible vinyl collection that, upon reasonable scrutiny, proved to be rather easily reduced. What circa-2003 college-radio geeks will make of my old Big Country 12"s and several hundred other assorted New Wave relics, I can't exactly imagine, but I was happy to contribute, at least, to their brief amusement. The few important things, I kept. Or, more accurately, the really important things I mostly replaced with CDs long ago, and the very few semi-important things I haven't been able to, linger on in antiquated crackle. In tribute to what remains, then, or in the hopes that all the dust released into my air during the sorting will not have taken flight in vain, I am spending tonight in odd corners of my past. Here, then, are ten (or eleven) songs I haven't thought much about in a long time, that my life still needs my turntable to play.
The Adventures: "When the World Turns Upside Down"
It is undeniably true that I have spent a lot of money on records in my life. Mercifully, I've never tracked purchase prices in any incarnation of my collection database, so I can't ruefully contemplate the exact combined cost, adjusted into 2003 dollars, of the crates of vinyl I just gave away. Nearly 500 LPs at an average of at least-- no, no good will come from the math. It's a lot. Poetically, though, the alphabetically-first album to survive the purge, the self-titled debut by the Adventures, bears a gold stamp on the back declaring its very sale illegal, and a huge pink sticker on the front identifying Sounds, on St. Mark's in New York, as risking indictment for the meager compensation of one dollar. I wasn't even tracking purchase dates yet, so all I can say for sure is that I didn't have this when I printed out my whole list in May of 1986, and did by a printout in 1989. I have three later Adventures albums on CD, but haven't found a replacement for this.
I never understood the front cover of this album. Only five of the band's seven members appear, and there's something wrong with the pictures of them, as if they've had their heads ineptly cut off and glued back onto their own bodies, to no apparent purpose. Behind the band is an anonymous horde wearing Devo-esque red hard-hats. This is very ugly, and makes the band look more like undernourished prisoners than adventurers of any sort. What makes this particularly mysterious is that there's a perfectly excellent photo right on the back cover. All seven of them are there, wearing not-quite-identical denim shirts buttoned primly up to their necks, and they're all gazing resolutely off to their left into some kind of light. Strictly speaking, this makes them look like fey New Wave dolts, not adventurers per se, but part of the central conceit of New Wave was that we overlooked this kind of thing. And my weirdly intense affection for the Adventures stems at least in part from the discovery in the credits that despite the band having seven full-time members, they still couldn't manage to cobble together a complete album without the help of eight more instrumentalists and a gospel choir, which for some reason I found impossibly endearing.
But as playing the album again now pleasantly reminds me, I also just loved the way the music sounded. More people didn't always mean bigger noises, and there were bigger productions even in 1985, when this was done. But as side one ends with my favorite moment on the album, the shimmery "When the World Turns Upside Down", I remember the difference between inflated and expansive. You could make these drums boom more, but the exuberant rattle of hand-percussion over kick-snare pulse is better. These guitars could roar, but better that they ping and chime like this. Anybody with a modern laptop could go back and show them how to build a seething apocalypse out of far fewer keyboards, but instead their banks of synths just swirl in warm colors. And Terry Sharpe, Eileen Gribben and Spud Murphy sing in formation, like the two harmonies are somehow tethered to the yearning lead. Never for a moment do I think that the light they're looking into in the photo isn't fake. But much of the history of art is a catalog of fake lights, and the journal of what we made them to pretend to see.
Attacco Decente: "The Law Above the Law"
Why I ever picked up the Attacco Decente EP United Kingdom of America in the store and turned it over, I can't report. On the back, though, is a hyperbolic paragraph-long endorsement by Billy Bragg, and this was 1986, when I still trusted Bragg's opinion on music. So I bought the record, even though the instrument list has a worrying number of dulcimers and in the little corner photo the three guys kind of look like a Proclaimers cover band at a junior technical college.
The dulcimers turn out to be a misdirection. The band does use them, along with flamenco guitars and some papery percussion, but the instruments mostly just produce a jangly texture over which the three players can sing intricate three-part protest harmonies. On most of the EP, vocal elegance seems temperamentally orthogonal to the resolutely blunt lyrics: "Dad Hits Mum" is a surreally mundane story about getting on a bus to escape an abusive father, "U.K.A." itself doesn't seem sure whether it's angrier at American corporations or the British aristocracy, and you will have to take my word for it that the anti-anti-masturbation anthem "Touch Yourself" includes the lines "The hawk hovers high, as you stride by. / It only strikes, it only eats, until its hunger's gone, / Like when you touch yourself." And "The Law Above the Law" is actually about some kind of fetal experimentation, I think, but for once they elide the details, and leave me to concentrate on the sound. "The law above the law is the only law that I would bow before", they sigh together, and whatever the first law they're specifically defying, in their voices for a moment is just the sound of knowing that we are better than what we suffer.
The Dream Academy: "Bound to Be"
The Dream Academy are one-hit famous for "Life in a Northern Town", and maybe one-verse famous, at that, for "He said 'In winter 1963 / It felt like the world would freeze / With John F. Kennedy / And the Beatles'", without which I'm not sure that the "Hey ma ma ma" chorus would have had anywhere to build from. I still only have their self-titled album on vinyl because there's really nothing else on it with a fraction of "Life in a Northern Town"'s helpless wistful awe. But I kept the vinyl not for the hit but for the song that opens the other side, an even more out-of-character gem of New Wave pop funk called "Bound to Be". It sounds like some totally different band is responsible for this song, not least because it would be absolutely nowhere without Pino Palladino's manically burpy bass line, and even a little lost without Adam Peters' groaning cello, the extra guitar from producer David Gilmour, and the extra Pips-like vocals from Caron Wheeler and Sam Brown. The regular band contribute drum-machine grooves and some synth fills, though, and the combination ends up somewhere between Propaganda's "Dr. Mabuse" and the Jets "Crush on You", or like the Teardrop Explodes falling in love with Wendy and Lisa doing their one-hand-each keyboard tease in Prince's "1999" video, or like twenty other socially impractical John Hughes dreams we can no longer quite sleep through.
Echo and the Bunnymen: "Never Stop"
I was kind of out of my Echo and the Bunnymen phase by the time CDs came around, so I was slow to upgrade my old LPs, and by the time I decided to deal with them the band had reunited and I'd hated the new albums. So I got the three old ones I really needed (Heaven Up Here, Porcupine and Ocean Rain), and didn't spend a lot of other energy on the subject. Thus, despite it appearing on CD in at least four forms, I still only have Echo and the Bunnymen's single greatest song on a blank-blue-covered vinyl EP ignominiously labeled with a list-price on the spine instead of a title. Dozens of lesser songs have had their revivals, but to me "Never Stop" has as solid a claim as anything to being New Wave's definitive single. A raspy cello slithers through the hooks, a drum machine thumps, synths bounce and sputter, pizzicato strings blip, guitars careen and squirm and squall, pianos clang and then soar, and Ian McCulloch wails like he doesn't know yet what Bono is going to usurp. An entire aesthetic is encapsulated in just the meticulous sum-of-its-parts production, each element superimposed on the arrangement without altering the others in any way, like color-separation vellums for a Mondrian lithograph. Maybe this is as close as music has come to defining the artificial impulse in art, period. I would play this for painters and architects and urban planners and poets and programmers. I would play this for anybody who hopes to create anything in our crowded world, and then make them ride the world's most decrepit public bus to the world's most dilapidated tower block, and refuse to bring them back again until they can explain how they will make songs that transcend media instead of boxes that suffocate souls.
Fiona: "Tragedy" / "Hopelessly Love You"
One of the most oddly and enduringly moving things I've ever seen on television was in a VH1 retro-special about the vanished age of heavy metal. Most of it was about old hair-band veterans playing bleary nostalgia package-tours, but there was a short interview with Lita Ford, and at one point there was a shot of her huddled on the beach in what was plainly not beach weather, earnestly telling the camera that some day metal will be back. On the global scale of human pathos, this isn't much, and for what it is it was probably even staged, but it got to me anyway, as if it was the sun that had died, and nobody had really explained it to her, and she was going to slowly freeze to death there on the sand still believing that it would flare back into life any moment.
But metal does come back, repeatedly, in whatever guises. Lita hasn't been recanonized, but Doro is still making similarly spirited records. What hasn't returned, and I miss more, is a kind of big-production poster-vixen arena rock that seemed integrally related to Lita's metal to me at the time, and I've only slowly realized where the lines between the two would turn out to have been drawn. Our poster idols now are too young, and too concerned with dancing and r&b crossovers. Shakira isn't what I call rock and roll. Britney in ripped jeans is still a Mouseketeer. The kids don't get this.
In my mind, then, it's actually Fiona sitting on that beach. I miss her. I miss Lita, too, but I miss Fiona like I miss My So-Called Life and the first time I got to drive a car home from seeing The Road Warrior and a very few other empathetic experiences of art inexplicably inscribed in my romantic memory. I can't rationally explain it, and don't even feel impelled to try. There are few albums more overproductively absurd (and maybe no album covers more ridiculous) than Beyond the Pale, Fiona's second record, but here it still is in my house after the purge, and as I listen to it again, my heart still speeds up. She still has my vote for the greatest female rock voice ever, and I still think Beau Hill was a corrupt production genius, no matter how mercenary. "Rock myself-- wah, it's hard to sing over that!", the record begins, reacting to some studio glitch we never hear, and it's the end of song two before I'm really back in the world again. "Tragedy" boings and slashes and preens, only-in-1986 synth-bass burbling happily and a shamelessly processor-polished backing choir swooping through pirouettes behind her. "Hopelessly Love You" has the best gated drums short of Phil's for Frida, and those glittery guitar chirps everybody's cooler than now, and silvery DX7 keyboard textures science has lost the equations for. And Fiona sings. She sings without subtlety or restraint, yet without the self-congratulatory self-awareness with which singers today would brandish deliberate lacks of subtlety or restraint. Fiona sings as if it has never occurred to anybody that there's another way to sing than with your heart wide open, and so her words say virtually nothing, and her voice makes the air around me better to breathe.
Intimate Strangers: "The Blue Hour"
The past swallows increasingly larger details, so a lot of the music that left my house could be described as footnotes to texts I no longer need expanded. But sometimes the footnotes are themselves the point. There was once a two-man band named Raise the Dragon, who made one gracefully mannered EP I thought was wonderful. Before they could even make a whole album, though, as best I can deduce, they got hit on the heads by falling frozen turkeys or something, and woke up with some sheet music and each other and no memories. They formed a new band, called Intimate Strangers in honor of their amnesiac alliance, and remade most of the songs from the EP in randomly different styles. Head injury isn't really a self-improvement program, and some of the songs fare incredibly poorly in their second lives ("Raise the Dragon" itself makes me very sad), but "The Blue Hour" is resurrected like the Blue Nile gritting their teeth through migraines in which they think they're Bruce Hornsby, and I sing along with it in honor of everything that never had a chance.
Level 42: "Heaven in My Hands"
I'm not, by nature, a one-hit music listener. Usually I have to like at least one whole album by an artist to care about them at all. Lest this sound like discrimination or discipline, I should point out that I like whole albums by plenty of bands whose public notoriety rests on isolated singles. I'm an American whose favorite band for years and years was Big Country, after all.
But every once in a long while I still do fall for just one song. One of the longest standing examples is the first song on Level 42's 1988 album Staring at the Sun, "Heaven in My Hands". The rest of the record bores me into a stupor. In the liner photo Mark King looks like a Danish striker relegated to second-division central defense in the twilight of his career, and much of the music seems to me to try to compensate for lack of inspiration with good positioning, too. But ah, this one song is still just about perfect. King's bass is restlessly overplayed and kinetic, Steve Sidwell's Asia-with-the-sludge-squeegeed-off horn-blasts are like sunlight punching bullet-holes through Spike and Drusilla's blacked-out car windows, and when King sings "From the mountains to the sea, / I'll run across this land / Looking out for strength and beauty", I take him momentarily at his word. We don't do that, of course. We don't run, and we don't cover that much ground, and we spend most of our time looking for vulnerabilities or dropped coins or just shelter. Strength and beauty live where they can sustain themselves without our attention.
Map of the World: "Hiroshima Girls"
If we'd taken bets on the future successes of Maria McKee, Natalie Merchant and Sophia Hanifi, based on the first Lone Justice, 10,000 Maniacs and Map of the World records, I'm pretty sure I'd have bet on Hanifi. This is the kind of prescience that explains why I have never been professionally employed in the music industry. Map of the World managed two EPs and one single for, as far as I've ever been able to determine, a total recorded output of fourteen songs. Only six were ever available on CD, and the single, "Hiroshima Girls", wasn't one of them. It's easy enough to imagine Atlantic's resistance to it, I guess. The title sounds like an interpolation between OMD's "Enola Gay" and "Tesla Girls", but the song, a careeningly twangy guitar-pop stomp, is too topical to take lightly, yet too elliptical to process as protest. "The plane has collected all the Hiroshima girls", they sing, turning the bomb into a strange abduction fable. The tiny detail "The slivers of glass still remain inside her", later, feels unsettlingly visceral to me, even as it's so hopelessly out of scale with the real tragedy. But I think this is what they're getting at. "Survivors don't live in the real world". Apparent frivolity clashes garishly with inhuman slaughter, but what if the alternative is allowing suffering to dictate the nature of our response?
Bram Tchaikovsky: "Girl of My Dreams"
And as my vinyl collection shrinks, the records that are left increasingly seem like one old story condensed out of all the languages in which I've heard hearts exult or break. Juxtaposition weaves strange things between them. By itself, Bram Tchaikovsky's "Girl of My Dreams" is just another of the thousand pop songs that somebody ought to sit down and give the you're-grown-up-now "girl"/"woman" speech to. Put it together with "Hiroshima Girls", though, and it becomes the harrowingly poignant second act of a composite re-write of They Might Be Giants' "Ana Ng" in which your soulmate is even farther away than distant. This is how easily we're manipulated, or at least how easily I am: take every lovelorn, breathless Girl song and imagine it an elegy.
Tirez Tirez: "Set the Timer"
Some day, maybe, I will have children myself. Girls, boys, their own dreams, their own mnemonics to remember what they're capable of feeling. It occurred to me, before I gave away most of a lifetime of black plastic and abraded cardboard to kids I didn't know, that maybe I should save it for my own. As I sorted albums according to my own needs, I wondered if that was the right criteria. But no, if those albums will puzzle college kids today, they'll be totally incomprehensible by the time any children of mine could reach music age. Not even the concept will make sense any more. Tiny grooves? Little bitty needles? And you could reproduce recorded sound that way? Well, it's quite a stunt, but so were sundials and leeching. It's now now, Dad.
So my favorite records, maybe, are lost like this, explications of forgotten forms, and elegies for what they once meant to me. How would I explain Tirez Tirez's "Set the Timer" to a child? Why do the drums do those same two beats over and over for the entire song? Why does the guitar keep playing those same two chords? Can't the piano player hear the rest of the music? Why is Mikel Rouse singing like a Smurf in a centrifuge? Why do the words read like these are the counterpoint backing-vocal lines behind some other real song? Why does it say "Specially-Priced Maxi-Single" when it's the size of a squashed basketball and there are only two songs on it? Why does that gold stamp say "Subject to Return on Demand by Owner"? Yikes, is he really going to keep singing like this the whole time? Had nobody discovered the other seven notes in an octave yet? How can this song last five minutes on ten seconds of unique music without even pointing out that it takes two to make a thing go right? Dad, can we go back downstairs and play VR assault games again yet?
Yes, yes. Go. I know. Nobody understood why I liked this song at the time, either, and I didn't want to hear my parents explain Ian and Sylvia when I was your age. I just wanted to go back to my room and listen to these records. We want our songs to be timeless, but of course they aren't, they only ever live as long as their duration, and it's us who puppet them through time by loving them. You're right to not hear this music, it doesn't really exist. The fact that I can play it is less a function of material durability than personal belief. I keep any records because I don't trust myself to sustain my whole own universe. Collecting is frailty, and you're still invulnerable. Sorry, sorry. I know, I'm doing that again. Go ahead, I'll be down soon. Soon, in a few minutes. After this record.