February 10, 2009

Reqiuem for a Music Geek: The Soothing Sounds of Regression Therapy

The more I re-read historian Peter Green, the more I think I might have some freaky-deeky past life in the Hellenistic Age. According to Green, that society was basically a three-hundred-year afterbirth of Alexander the Great's transcontinental military stompilation—a mass of neurotic and egomaniacal inadequates, constantly obsessed with analyzing and anthologizing their civilization's glorious past. Now, connecting that with my own less-than-latent self-absorption might seem a stretch, unless of course you have the occasion to, say, speak with any of my ex-girlfriends—who will undoubtedly be happy to regale you with horror stories of my near-psychotic ability to "dwell on the past," "take things too personally," and "never ever get over anything." My father might also have similar insights on this, too—but the point is the same: like many humans, I am congenitally vulnerable to the icy grip of nostalgia, and it works on my psyche in weird and warped ways. Naturally, as a lily-white rock music geek I have all sorts of sonic triggers for said nostalgic impulses, and thankfully I was able to notice and harness them as their frequency increased considerably when I passed my thirtieth birthday—which isn't really that different from what happens to many other people at this age, but so what?

It was kind of a perfect storm—my band Honey White wasn't playing or rehearsing much anymore, I settled into a steady professional career, got married, and bought a house in a California beach town that was developmentally schizophrenic enough, in one way or another, to remind me of every other California beach town I'd lived in or visited in my life. The knockout blow, though, was landed almost three years ago, when I saw a film called "Brick" for the first time. It's a fairly transparent genre mash-up exercise (teen flick meets crime noir) that nevertheless pushed all the right buttons to send me spiraling into a pit of the past that I'm only now starting to crawl out of. The fact that it was filmed in director Rian Johnson's hometown of San Clemente, California—right next to Dana Point, where I grew up—was fatal, in terms of zapping me back 10-15 years and a few hundred miles, and the cinematography's atmospheric attention to detail sealed the deal. I thought, "Shit, I could do that—and I could write it, too." I dug out the half-baked Bret Easton Ellis rip-offs that I'd scrawled when applying for grad school fiction programs, and rebuilt them from the ground up, throwing "Brick" and other films like "Donnie Darko" into the thick, congealing goo along with stylistic bits and pieces of authors like Ellis, Donna Tartt, Neal Stephenson, Irvine Welsh, Hunter Thompson, and Chuck Klosterman, and it eventually became my "novel," The Weapon of Young Gods.

Naturally, it all had to have a soundtrack. Now, many of my friends and bandmates have endured my Reverb Thesis—the one where I argue that our brains are hard-wired to crave sounds evocative of aquatic and/or zero-gravity spaces because of how they subconsiously yank our minds back to the first sounds our ears ever processed, which we heard as fetuses through liquid in the womb. I slapped this idea together, however, because of a much less profound reason: my childhood was in the early 1980s, when chilly New Wave sounds ruled Southern California radio stations like KROQ and 91X, and echoing, reverbed guitar notes where everywhere; behemoths like U2, the Cure, and the Smiths were the biggest offenders, of course, but there were thousands more. Anyway, it's for those reasons that I think reverb makes me nostalgic for childhood and young adulthood—even as a junior in college, Radiohead's "OK Computer" album was slathered in enough reverb to affect me that way. It was more contemporary stuff, however, that conspired to really sink me in the dunk tank of nostalgia, and the formula wasn't really all that complicated: relatively simplistic lyrics set to big, booming rock epics. Conveniently enough, the dreaded Twenty-Year Nostalgia Cycle had progressed to the point where things like that were trendy again, so I should have foreseen my doom. As it was, I had to (yet again, and as always) realize this too slow to take proper advantage of it, but i was helped along by music from three bands in particular (though no one album specifically), and many other songs from many more groups of similar styles.

Surprisingly, the Secret Machines were the first out of the gate. Bryn and I had previously been really into their "Now Here is Nowhere" album, but the tunes were arguably a bit too prog, and the lyrics too pretentiously knowing, to really qualify as grade-A juvenalia. Their second album "Ten Silver Drops," however—and specifically its first half—had reverted spectacularly to personal self-obsession and reflection: "Alone, Jealous and Stoned," "All At Once," "Lightning Blue Eyes," and "Daddy's in the Doldrums" were, for whatever reason, great primers for my brain to go all squishy and regressive. The shockingly pedestrian sentiments at the heart of each Curtis Bros. lyric were shot through with some genuine hard hits which were just as simple, but no less effective: "I know that I was wrong/but that don't mean you were right"—stuff like that. Puerile on paper, but as any Pink Floyd fan knows, pretty effective when set to symphonic pomposity—as the teenage mind is prone to do, of course. It's a weird thing to get deep into a piece of art that you know damn well is cerebrally beneath you on your good days, but that's pop music for you—and like I said, I was primed to receive this shit in the worst way, so it worked very well at best and set the stage for the next round: Interpol.

I actually detested Interpol when I first heard of them in 2002. I hated how they looked like just another arrogant bunch of New York art students that were way too pretentious for their own good—and believed all the snooty reviews by aging blowhards like Robert Christigau who lambasted Interpol as a calculated reheating/diluting of Joy Division and various other post-punk English depression cases. Paul Banks' stentorian drone of a voice didn't help either...but when it was on the store stereo down at Just Play Music in Santa Barbara, there was that frigid and deadly guitar tone, backed up by a muscular J-bass and cannon-fire percussion, and I eventually conceded that I could deal with—even enjoy—stuff like "Untitled" and "NYC" and "Lief Erikson," as long as I didn't have to look at those pretentious motherfuckers. My brother Bryn sensed weakness, but I rebuffed his attempts to sell me on Interpol's second disc, "Antics," during the summer that our band was making our very own reverby-epic album in San Francisco. Bryn didn't give up, though—he knew how much of a pathetic sucker I was, as an unregenerate U2 fan, for egomaniacal grandiosty—and so set his next trap with Interpol's third album "Our Love to Admire." Not coincidentally, the band had opened for U2's "Vertigo" tour in the interim, and like the Doves and Secret Machines before them, made an album after that experience that was predictably, but awesomely, epic in shape and scope—helped in no small way, surely, by an injection of major-label attention. Bryn knew that all he had to do was play me the first track, "Pioneer to the Falls," and I'd become a quivering puddle of ecstatic glop—which is precisely what happened. The plastic angst that coursed through the song and its parent album was a great soundtrack to bashing out chapter after chapter of fiction marinated in bitter and ugly memories; "Pace is the Trick," "Mammoth," and "Rest My Chemistry" worked wonders, too.

You can't be a sad bastard all the time, though, and neither of the previous two bands worked well when I needed to juice up some less...morose material. I had just about played Interpol to death by the time British Sea Power released their shiny new "Do You Like Rock Music???" album, and that plus their previous two added—as only zany Englishmen could—the right amount of refreshing self-confidence, annoying whimsy, and bizarre celebration of random crap. BSP is pretty obviously indebted to early-80s groups like Echo and the Bunnymen, but Echo never seemed to laugh at anything at all; BSP singers Yan and Hamilton take on ugly nativism ("Waving Flags"), rampaging senility ("True Adventures"), vicious revenge "A Wooden Horse"), deadly floods ("Canvey Island"), and collapsing icebergs ("Oh Larsen B") with alarming amounts of pip-pip and tally-ho aplomb. The way they go from zero to HUGE in three minutes on "Canvey Island" is amazing, and the extended instrumental coda to "Larsen B" is elegaic, simple, and glorious. Like the previous two bands, though, they couldn't sustain it to my satisfaction over the course of an entire album—my British Sea Power playlist is some great daffy fun for an afternoon drive, but it's only about 16 songs; too innocent to tickle my snide side a la Supergrass, and too twee to take on the studied cool of other bright-and-happy-sounding bands like Sea and Cake. There's another weird parallel, too—for some reason BSP falls into the same category of indulgent and harmless Anglophilia that I'd been stuck in with "Foyle's War" DVDs and "Harry Potter" books—which smacks of some weighty but distant Welsh/Cornish roots that my mom's side of the family clings to desperately when they're feeling karmaically put upon.

And yeah, it's hard to see any of this as anything other than, at root, some massively delusional behavior on my part. You may have laughed or sneered at many points in this essay, and I don't blame you. I mean, escaping from my adult life via the soothing sounds of regression therapy? The only excuse I really have is that this is my default setting, really—it took some pretty big (and probably childishly overblown) emotional traumas to send me fleeing in to the arms of lyrically caustic geniuses like Dylan, Costello, and Lowery—and even though listening those three titans of truth goosed me to write my best stuff, and remain my biggest well of inspiration, I think that for better or worse I'll still be the same coddled suburban teen who thought (thinks?) one of the most ecstatically high highs is Edge's guitar solo in "The Fly." Emotional juvenalia is a nasty, vicious habit, but I succumbed to its siren song way too long ago to turn back now. All I can do is hope that whenever it rears its ugly head—like when I hear wind chimes in TV on the Radio's "Tonight,"—I can at least keep the bastard on a leash long enough to bleed some more refried wisdom out of each successive sorry episode. Hopefully it won't hit me again for another ten years, but if it does, I can always write it off as a Genuine Mid-Life Crisis, and maybe get a sparkly expensive new guitar in the deal, too.


  1. Marge: "Homer! What happened? The car wasn't like that before."

    Homer: "Before, before! You're living in the past, Marge! Quit living in the past!"

    No one can ignore the past and waste the present while doing nothing to prepare for the future quite like Homer. If being nostalgic bugs you, I recommend you watch more of Season 8 with me. If not, drink a beer. It helps either way. :)


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