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The new video from Spektor’s upcoming album Far, releasing on June 22nd.
It would be easy to say that Eef Barzelay has brokered a Faustian bargain for himself—if only he got something out of it in the end.
Barzelay—the frontman for lauded indie-country act Clem Snide—has a cool demeanor, and in talking to him, it is clear that he has given his soul to what he does. Yet outside of some acclaimed independent records (both leading Clem Snide and as a solo artist) and some notable film scores, it seems that he doesn’t have much to show for it. However, Barzelay and his band are not discouraged in the least. With their name culled from a character from one of America’s foremost outcast artist—William S. Burroughs—Clem Snide is a bit character.
“I am embarrassed to have that reference in the name,” Barzelay says shortly after we start chatting. He is at home in Nashville with a five month old child on his shoulder, a new record with his old band just out, and a tour looming in the very near future. “I always make these big decisions that I don’t think about. We had a tape [of Burroughs] and if you listen to him read his stuff is hysterical. It opened with ‘my name’s Clem Snide and I’m a private asshole,’ and I thought that sounds like me.”
When you start to dissect the long and winding road that is the Clem Snide biography, it all traces back to Barzelay’s voice. It isn’t your traditional singing voice. It has a whine pitch that is more about emotional exhaustion than it is weakness. It’s equal parts River Cuomo’s sarcasm, Daniel Johnston’s sadness and Mark Oliver Everett’s attention to detail. For a time, it was also the most recognizable voice in a small indie circle defined by recognizable voices. Clem Snide was able to glide between genres like pop and alt-county with relative ease. It was the kind of voice that you would hear through the doors of dormitories and on the far end of music dials. Truly, it had the potential to be the voice of a decade.
Snide got what they thought was a great break when they were picked to do the theme song for television show Ed in its second season. Unfortunately, the fan base from Ed reacted poorly to the replacement of the original Foo Fighters version of the song. “I was reading this Stuckeyville.org fucking message board or whatever,” says Barzelay, “and there were all these people with letters saying ‘what is this song, it’s like someone torturing a Yak.’ Just vitriolic shit. Man, they love[d] that Foo Fighters song. No one was too pleased with the way [our song] turned out.” It appeared once again that fame would slip through Clem Snide’s fingers.
Then Clem Snide abruptly called in quits. “Ultimately, it was a falling out with me and the guitar player and that was in conjunction with a really nasty break up with our manager. For me to announce that it was broken up was probably an emotional reaction. Technically I started Clem Snide in 1991 and we didn’t make a record until 1997.” After a few notable releases, the dynamic in Clem Snide dissolved; losing a label and a booking agent in a short time span and all that was left was a lot of ideas for songs and that remarkable voice. Eef Barzelay was not unaware that his voice alone was worth something. So Clem Snide called it quits with a catalogue that included notable albums like You Were a Diamond,Your Favorite Music, Soft Spot,End of Love, Ghost of Fashion, and the successful Beautiful EP (featuring a cover of the Christina Aguilera song of the same name). It was a respectable discography and could have been the last of the band. Fortunately, Eef Barzelay was not finished.
Barzelay knew that he had more to write, so he relocated to Nashville and embarked on a solo career. Left in the vaults, however, was an unfinished record that Barzelay had strong feelings about. As he mulled this, a unique opportunity was presented to Barzelay: he was asked to score a small film called Rocket Science. It was a small budget quirky film about a boy with a stutter who attempts to overcome the problem by joining the debate team at his New Jersey. Though Barzelay knocked the project out of the park, once again his timing was off. Barzelay notes that despite the momentum the film had, “We opened the same weekend and Superbad and that sorta killed us at the box office.” Nonetheless, Rocket Science was a critical darling and has become a cult favorite. In addition to being an unforgettable voice of the new generation he was now also a film scorer. With the time left over in the sessions for Rocket Science, Barzelay dug out that project he had been working on. The difference was, this wasn’t going to be a solo record. This was, definitively, a Clem Snide record. Water had gone under the proverbial bridge and it was time to put the band back together. So 2009 sees the release of a new Clem Snide record, made on a movie’s dime and featuring front and forward that voice.
Hungry Bird sounds like an AC Newman record peppered with abstract lyrics like “we have their bones to comb our hair”, Barzelay’s voice appearing to be beamed in from some outer planet. The title track is more poetry wordplay than traditional rock number. In fact, much of the record has the feel of lyrics detached from the relentlessly atmospheric. Clem Snide has expanded into Wilco-sized level of musical experimentation but without the noted histrionics. The blend of the two side by side feel inspired.
“I make music sort of from the inside out which is different than most indie music is made today. It’s about my voice and my words and if you listen to it and try to compare to My Morning Jacket or a Shins record, it’s great. There is a sophistication to it that is great. We are not that. Clem Snide is supposed to be confrontational and that’s the punk part that is missing in indie music right now.”
It is hard to see where the future of Clem Snide may lead. The band seems to agree that touring places a burden on them. Barzelay is now the father of two young children and the notion of months away from his family sits uneasily with him. Nonetheless, the band have hit the road to promote Hungry Bird, playing just like they did during their early days. The film scoring business seems to be picking up for Barzelay, and—as such—he is afforded more choices than to load into a van and travel thousands of miles to remind fans what the voice of a movement sounded like. On the other hand, Rivers Cuomo and Eddie Vedder have found ways to do it and perhaps Clem Snide can too. If Hungry Bird is any indication, it would be worth all of our times if the men of Clem Snide do just that. Maybe Barzelay did make a Faustian bargain: he has his family, his fans, and—of course—he has that voice.
And Ed has been cancelled.
Harlan Ellison makes me feel guilty for being a writer - or at the very least, for calling myself one. He’s the true scribe, the real deal, the madman Muhammad Ali of letters. Whether it’s sci-fi, or speculative fiction, or imaginative literature (his preference tends to change over time), Ellison is the standard bearer for the genre and the hateful curve breaker, the smartest kid in the class and the smart-assiest man on the planet. He has every right to be arrogant, pissy, and proud. He’s won numerous awards, crafted classic pieces of prose and commentary, lived the life that dozens of lesser men would kill for, and still finds the time to complain almost constantly about the world around him - and with good reason. In a society slowly fading into a cloud of self-inflicted illiteracy, he’s the last intellectually angry man. In essence, he’s reason in a universe racked with conformity, insipidness, and ennui.
So why does he inspire such shame in yours truly? Certainly, it has little to do with his prodigious output or cantankerous cultural perspective. It has nothing to do with the tall tales and legends legitimized as part of his already amazing history. There is no connection to his recent lack of product, since it’s crystal clear the man works when he wants and feels like it. In fact, there is nothing in the stunning, spellbinding documentary Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, that fuels said feelings of inadequacy. No, it’s like standing in the presence of the Pope and recognizing that you will never be as pious, or well-placed, as this idolized man of the cloth. And when you consider this raging Atheist’s religion is words, the lack of faith is infinitely frustrating.
On screen, Ellison is a mesmerist. Director Erik Nelson, best known for his historical TV documentaries and producing Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, does a very smart thing here. In true talking head style, he keeps the camera centered squarely on the author. Even better, in between the ample anecdotes, he has him read from his amazing works. Whether its real life reminiscences of his time spent as a child in Ohio, or allegorical brilliance ala “Repent Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman, UK author Neil Gaiman says it best when he calls everything Ellison does part of an elaborate “performance art” - with the creation known as ‘Harlan Ellison’ at the very center. There are times when you wonder whether one man can be this confrontational, this candid…this creative. And then there are moments when you wonder why other artists don’t follow his lead.
Nelson moves us through the basics of the Ellison mythology - the brutalized and bullied youth, the teen wanderlust that saw him migrate between school and odd jobs around North America, the college professor who dismissed his talent outright, the move to New York and into legitimate publishing. And all the while, we sit and stare in awe. This is just one man yet his life has contained so much adventure within his carefully measured time on this planet that it’s astounding - and Dreams with Sharp Teeth barely scratches the surface. Of course, there’s much more - some of it discussed (the Star Trek issue, The Oscar debacle), much of it missing. Indeed, the numerous love affairs and personal falling outs he’s had over the decades are swept under the rug and left to biographers and bellyachers to tackle and tame. Yet Nelson does touch on his tenuous legal battles, one of which (against AOL) nearly bankrupted him.
Like any great propagandist, Ellison wants to make sure we get his side of the story - and his side alone. One imagines a ban on naysayers being part of his contractual obligation to participate. Of course, he would probably argue that few if any stepped up to the challenge. Granted, he has outlived many of his staunchest critics, but there are some who will still take him to task. Having them present would have provided a buffer to a few of the more egregious backslappings. Ellison is painted in a troubling light more than once (a standoff with a college kid at M.I.T. combines the best of his curse-laden ranting and post-paternal instincts), but he’s never put in the same critical light as others he lambasts. Sure, Gaiman can give a cursory quip meant to knock him down a notch, or childhood friends can undercut his outcast claims, but Ellison is his own best defense. Instead of using truth, however, he removes slander by merely amplifying the war of words.
This is why the question of his posthumous legacy gets continual play here. Some see Ellison - rightfully so, it must be said - as being one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, someone who took genre fiction and “fixed” it, forever yanking it away from the obsessive and giving it to the learned and the literate. His short stories sing with undeniable imagination, and the more formal aspects of his craft transcend teaching to become something akin to magic. But there are those who infer that Ellison could be so much more - more famous, more accepted, more mainstream - if he just didn’t spout off so often. The man himself concedes to some of this critique, arguing that his own personal demands and desire to have things “his way” burns more bridges than it builds. Still, he’s not about to change his well-earned cynic’s spots to suit an ever dimming media demographic.
So the reason I feel guilty about being a writer is all but manifest in Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth. I will never have this man’s integrity - be it well earned or abjectly coerced. I will never have his talent - his is a muse so rare it rates its own level of attention and wonder. I will never see his type of career arc - he was born at the right time, his rambunctious vitriol a perfect antidote to ‘50s conformity, ‘60s radicalism, ‘70s pop psychology, and ‘80s corporate greed. And when I pass from this planetary realm, I will never be remembered as reverently or justifiably as he. Perhaps I don’t deserve any of it. So I call myself a writer and, for what it’s worth, recommend this remarkable and absorbing cinematic statement. As documentaries go, it’s a brilliant distillation of a figure of almost impossible scope. Here’s hoping it opens Ellison up to a whole new audience - and here’s knowing that they won’t be ready for him.