by Erik Hage
The Hour of Possibility
I was a little green when I entered school in New York City that year. I also felt more than a little out of place, having spent my teenage years in a tiny rural town upstate. After high school I tried to escape a lot of things by entering the Army as a medic. My recruiter painted a picture of me wearing whites in some hospital; the reality was the 101st Airborne and three years to dwell on not wasting any more time. So my overadjustment was studying theater at ultra-hip NYU and always feeling like a corn-fed alien with little more than lint in my pockets. (I know for a fact I was the only student in the Tisch School of the Arts living on the GI Bill.)
I wouldn't say I was oppressed or fighting any power, but my brush with Public Enemy's track was an enlightening listening experience. Chuck D. sounded like an enraged anchorman, while Flava Flav was a dangerous cartoon, occasionally shooting his head up out of rabbit holes to drop a lyric. The Bomb Squad kicks off the track like soulful thunder and then Flav comes sweeping in with "1989..." only to have Chuck leapfrog over him, stepping on his words: "...89 the number / another summer / sound of the funky drummer / music hittin' you hard cuz you got sooouuuulll." Flav is left to nip at Chuck's heels but doesn't seem to mind, bobbing and weaving and dropping jabs like "Get down!" and "Brothers and sisters!" while Chuck takes the lead. Chuck D. promised hip-hop would be "The Black CNN," a media-savvy format for revolution. And while the current crop of Jay-Zs, Nellys and Shynes may never realize his prophecy, for four minutes anything seemed possible.
The song is layers of angel food, Phil Spector at a children's birthday party. It's a Sunday morning makeup class and the campus is dead empty...except that right ahead of us is one of those ubiquitous and horrible family vans. Apparently the parents decided to take their teenage scholar out for a tour of college campuses. Only they don't know where they're going, so instead of entering the traffic circle, they brake and start creeping backwards, as if to suddenly execute a three-point turn.
My Omni has all of the precision handling of a milk crate, but somehow--practically up on two wheels--I am able to careen around the genius dad's split-second decision. The Beach Boys track is swelling, Matt has a death grip on the "oh shit" handle, I come to a full stop 20 yards ahead of the still oblivious van, roll down my window and give them the full extension on the middle finger, rain misting on my extended arm.
And the Beach Boys are still singing. The song is so wistful and sweet; maybe Brian Wilson was trying to bury his head in the sand or whistle in the dark in an increasingly bizzare and hostile world (and in the face of his own encroaching, drug-fuelled mental illness). I don't care: it's still one the simplest, most beautiful sentiments. "Happy times together we'd be spending / I wish that every kiss was never-ending." Indeed.
Here's an interesting tidbit: I still have a receipt stored inside the CD case of my copy of Loveless. I bought it when it first came out in 1991 and, unprepared for the sonics, wasn't really sure if there was something wrong with the CD. There wasn't--but I always kept that receipt just in case. "Only Shallow" starts off that album with such warped bombast that it sounds like the whole band has been reduced to a pile of embers by the end. In the final seconds, after a four-minute assault, only a small plume of shuddering melody wafts off the wreckage. But then life is breathed back into the album and it thunders on for its full length, never allowing you to catch your breath. It's such a monumental work that MBV leader (and recent Primal Scream guitarist) Kevin Shields--despite reported years of labor--has been unable to follow it up.
So, suffice to say that The Stooges' unimpressed take on the era ("another year with nothing to do") sits real nice with me. You know that part in the song where Iggy sings, "I say 'oh my' and a 'boo hoo'"? That's me feeling sorry for myself. Later in my life, when I realized that The Stooges were making this low-grade, seminal punk in the midst of the popularity of Haight Ashbury and West Coast psychedelia, it was an epiphany (and I don't overuse that word). The Stooges weren't revolutionary hipsters. They were, as rock critic Ira Robbins put it so perfectly in Salon magazine, "bad seeds, pollution-fueled aliens [who] fit into the cultural fabric like cigarette holes in a couch." I'll always love The Stooges for that.
But I'm stalling. I guess I'm trying to figure out how to wrap my words around The Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes"--that strange lazy beauty that you can't shake (like much of that album, the Velvets' third). There's a single tambourine trying to keep the beat in a distant corner. There are two guitars, one strumming, muted, in the background, one rippling and cascading bittersweetly on the surface. "Sometimes I feel so happy / sometimes I feel so sad," begins Lou, trying to work through the basic math of his feelings, only to realize the hopeless complexity of his desire by the next verse: "If I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see / I'd put you in the mirror I put in front of me." And that's the pattern of his desire, trying to rationalize it in a binary fashion ("It was good what we did yesterday" or "It's truly truly a sin") then getting wrapped around himself ("The fact that you are married only proves you're my best friend" or "Down for you is up"). But when it gets too much, he returns to his mantra--a touchstone built on remembrance and beauty: "Linger on, your pale blue eyes." It all seemed so counter to the avant-gardisms on the band's previous albums
Even though the group made an impression on me, I didn't actually listen to their music until I was in junior high, when I picked up a cassette of Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols. I guess I always thought their music would sound different--I thought it would be more nihilistic and grating. But to me it sounded like melodic, albeit primitive, pop music. The guitar riffs were clotted cream--thick, distorted and melodic. I didn't know that EMI was a record company and didn't care. I just loved the way Johnny Rotten sneered, occasionally trilled his "R"s, snottily laughed and rhymed "faking-ah!" and "money-making-ah!"
In my junior high school, you were pretty much on the outside if you didn't have a mullet and a worn copy of The Wall. Johnny Rotten made me not care. I saw the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury recently in a nearly empty theater on Houston Street; I guess I had forgotten the grand energy of that group, and hearing their music again after so long was a shot in the arm. It sounds even more like gorgeous pop music now. I also now know what EMI is...and it still doesn't matter.
For this 1994 song, Stephen Malkmus seems to drop his trademark non sequiturs for something almost resembling a narrative. (Check out the poetry of John Berryman if you want to see where Malkmus draws inspiration for his loopy lyrics.) "I want a range life, if I could settle down / If I could settle down, then I would settle down," sings Malkmus in some kind of breezy, circular pattern of thought, off-key and at the top of his range. I was always more of a backpack and mountain bike kind of kid than a skater, but when Malkmus sings, "Out on my skateboard, the night is just hummin'," I want to drift on a deck through some Northern California suburb (dude).
The lyrics in this song can come off two ways: 1) The singer really is as omniscient as he says and his unfaithful love is flat busted, or 2) It's an empty threat from a powerless nerd, whose outrageous claims make him a laughingstock (as his girl walks off with a much cooler guy). The latter would be correct if it weren't for the call-and-answer between Townshend and Moon, with Pete's angry, fuzzed-up guitar accusing and Keith's brief blasts of drums and sizzling cymbal replying. (In calmer moments, you can almost hear their tails twitching.) These powerful personalities put muscle behind the singer's claims.
That's it, kids...and if this doesn't sustain you over the course of an hour, insert your own choice at the end. (Just no Eagles, please...or Limp Bizkit...or Lamonte Young...or Rolling Stones...or Ani DiFranco...or Creed...or...)
"Fight the Power" Public Enemy Fear of a Black Planet