Radiohead: The Bends
This is one of those follow-up albums (like the last Spin Doctors one and, I fear, the next Counting Crows, the Offspring, and Blur records) that I always hope will sound like ten imitations of the one or two great hits of the band’s not-so-great previous commercial-breakthrough LP, but instead just proves the band is afraid to be pigeonholed into the only style it’s very good at.
Radiohead’s breakthrough hit was “Creep,” which at first I dismissed as a wussy David Bowie cabaret ballad with corny Jesus and Mary Chain lawnmower guitar snags stuck in there. But eventually I fell in love because I’m a creep and a weirdo who wonders what the hell I’m doing here myself, plus the lawnmowers really did snag me, and the falsetto part was heaven. Radiohead singing “I want you to notice when I’m not around” was even better than creepy weirdo Michael Jackson singing “You won’t be laughing girl when I’m not around” in “Give In To Me” (my second-favorite song of 1993), and both lines felt like suicide.
The Bends is never “Creep”-like enough, but “My Iron Lung” (a late Beatles pastiche with surprise noise) and “Just” (which seems to swipe powerchords from “Smells Like Nirvana” by Weird Al Yankovic) come close. There’s more nice guitar gush (e.g. the sub-Tom-Scholz anthemic stairclimb of “Black Star”), but the rest of the album mostly reminds me of Suede trying to rock like Sparks but coming out like U2, or (more often) that hissy little pissant in Smashing Pumpkins passive-aggressively inspiring me to clobber him with my copy of The Grand Illusion by Styx. Too much nodded-out nonsense mumble, not enough concrete emotion.
- Spin, 1995
Walking Into Spiderwebs: The Ultimate Band List
Back in my word processor days, only a year ago, I assumed the whole computer thing was a pernicious divisive plot, significant mainly in how it separated folks who had modems from folks who didn’t. But now that I’m an e-mail and online junkie, I’m eating my prejudices. The Ultimate Band List at its best strikes me as a social tool, a cool new way to connect with other people. Locate the elaborate Web page dedicated to French disco chantoozy Mylene Farmer, and you get passionate stories of Internet pen pals from all over Europe convening to swap imports, attend a concert together, then catch a sad bus ride home: “The other passengers (normal tourists who don’t know nothing about Mylene) were talking about Versailles, Paris by night… and I increased the volume on my Walkman.”
Reduced to endlessly anal collector-geek cataloguing of B-side fetishes, such obsessiveness can feel neurotic. But it can also feel hilarious. A letter called, no kidding, “Camel Long May They Continue” has some nut detailing his Camel collection and how many times he’s seen said obscure ’70s prog group live, proving his loyal devotion to the ridiculous. If he were truly solipsistic, he wouldn’t be sharing his hobby with us. I get off on the surprise in fans’ voices upon learning that they’re not alone. “Wow, technology is great!” writes a Tiffany fan. But he’s still not quite satisfied: “Why doesn’t she email a little message to say ‘hello’? Maybe there are too many Tiffany stalkers out there (hint, hint… thanks a lot).”
Okay, maybe that one’s a little creepy. But stars are, by definition, objects of desire. “Feast your eyes on the glory that is Timothy B.!!! :).” (Schmit, that is; three delectable head shots.) An article entitled “why girls love Girls Against Boys” conducts a survey: “Scott has one of the most no-table necks in rock and roll… He looks like a slick Italian hood-kid and a prince.” Gina G, not unlike Atari Teenage Riot, had a Web page even before having an album to sell. The Gina G Experience lets you choose between “Samples: Forgotten what she sounds like?” and “Images: After all, she is very pretty.” Click the latter, you get the Gina G Picture Postcard Gallery: “Gina looking sultry,” “Gina looking cheesy,” “Gina showing a bit of body.” (Oooh, ahh, just a little bit, sad to say.)
The ultimate Ultimate Band List objective is to prove you’ve had actual contact with the band: “I met Local H TWICE!!!” Your handwritten note from Bananarama, even your dream where the Fall’s Mark E. Smith beats up his Tibetan drummer—anything’s fair game. Webpagers yearn to connect with their fantasy figures as real people, then impart inside info: “Ricky dresses the weirdest to me, and I’m weird so I love it… carries his arrows around in a fox pouch that hangs over his shoulder. How tits is that?” (From Black Oak Arkansas page, reprinted from Circus magazine in 1975—hey, I’m not saying the Internet invented this kind of fantalk. How tits would that be?) Almost everybody on Failure’s website brags about getting high with the band backstage: “Greg seemed very intelligent using words i had to look up when I got home.” (A shame Greg’s not in Bad Religion, whose site actually has its own dictionary: “Herein lies most of the big words found in the lyrics of every Bad Religion song.” Sounds like a parody, but it’s not: aberration, absolve, abstain, accolade...)
Slick press-releasey sites laid down by record companies are never as fun as fans’ own creations, which can be self-effacing about their amateurism (“I couldn’t figure out the lineup changes, and if I could, I probably couldn’t fit it in a decent sentence,” Martin Mathis confesses on his page on Australian hard rock gods Angel City) and shameless in their enthusiasm. Turn to the Pat Benatar Addict Support Page, and a box flashes before your screen: “WARNING: Dangerously low Benatar levels detected! Installing BenaWare for proper enjoyment. One moment.” Then you get to “name that Benatune”!
I love all the blatant editorial hyperbole. “This page is dedicated to perhaps the most prescient band ever… Well, did video kill the radio star, or what?” (which introduces the confusingly titled “Not Complete Discography of the Buggles,” full of cryptic compliments like “It’s used strange rhythm skilfully”). The Jane Child page consists of reams of e-notes, all swearing the Canadian singer was ahead of her time. “Do you find it slightly amusing that everyone has a nose ring, now?” one asks. Another: “It is so obvious that the success of Alanis Morissette, Joan Osborne, PJ Harvey, and Ruby is relevant to Jane Child’s alternative style.” Most rock critics would be scared to suggest such comparisons, or to devise, as somebody somehow found time to, a meticulously calibrated 10-point rating system dissecting every last tune poodle-metallers Britny Fox ever recorded: “Let’s face it ‘Stevie’ is a boy’s name, not a girl’s name. Even though the song could be awesome, I just can’t get over that name thing.” (Good thing he’s not reviewing Fleetwood Mac.)
Tiffany’s site has a file called “In the Trash” into which “people who really need to get a life” can submit “nasty, hostile or obscene comments.” The only comment posted so far on Nada Surf’s bulletin board snipes: “Is this the band with the idiotic cheerleaders and jocks in a video? Man, that was gay.” And now that their hit “Stuck On You” has been swallowed by the “braindead mainstream,” all the midnight tokers on Failure’s page are worried about “screeching girls” and “alternative sluts,” not to mention TV star Margaret Cho’s crush on the lead singer. If we’re lucky, it’ll explode into a full-blown culture war.
There’s a sense of involvement here, an excitement, a commitment to how people really talk. In the fleeting space of cyber, nobody cares much for punctuation or spelling. Grammatical errors and run-on phrases make UBL writing gyrate like some hyperactive new dance step. The Web being worldwide, there’s no lack of English-as-foreign-language twistedness about Boney M, say, or Einstürzende Neubauten—“Very first website in French about this sound makers out of Germany.” Anybody can be a critic here, and there’s something equally democratic in how the list itself reduces every musical act from local bar bands hyping homemade hackery to Johann Sebastian Bach to the same level, one line item each. Cypress Hill, for some reason, are filed under “W.” Maybe they picked their UBL spot the same day they ordered that classical orchestra for Homerpalooza.
- Village Voice, 25 March 1997
Talking World War III Blues
After squinting from my Park Slope rooftop as the smoke blew into Brooklyn last Tuesday, sneezing through the ashes dusting cars even that far south, staring choked-up and bleary-eyed at the atrocity exhibition on CNN for most of the afternoon and night, wondering if my family and friends back in the heartland would connect to all this more if it hadn’t happened in a city they mainly know from disaster movies, I found myself relieved again that the army no longer lists my onetime Signal Corps Captainhood on their reserve rolls. In the 24 hours following the destruction, a line about mushroom clouds from the grief-ridden song “Shattered Within” by ambient Finnish metal band Amorphis kept repeating inside my head, and the only music that made any sense when I put it on was other desolate enveloping doomsday metal like Neurosis and My Dying Bride, funereally moaned and codeine-tempoed and devoid of shape or reason—just blank nuclear-winter mood, no personality to get in the way since there was too much to think about already. And I didn’t play it loud.
Wednesday morning, the eerily paper-strewn and sparsely populated Armageddon blocks between the Prince Street subway stop and Astor Place reminded me for the first time ever of Detroit, in the wee hours after Devil’s Night maybe. In my e-mailbox: a long letter from Iranian-born former Voice intern Sanaz Mozafarian, about her hearing that Arab Americans were already being harassed in public, about cars near Wall Street with “Revenge Is the Only Answer” scrawled into the soot on their hoods, about how trying to reach the financial district’s ground zero from her midtown morning dance class after Tuesday’s explosions had reminded Sanaz of braving Seattle’s “no protest zone” in December of 1999. Spinning in the background was a newly arrived Best Of Randy Newman CD I put on just to drown out whatever, and the song that goes “They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise ’em, let’s drop the big one and pulverize ’em” gave me shivers.
Back in oddly sunny Brooklyn later that day, friends and I walked up to Methodist Hospital to offer blood donations, and on the way back stopped at a five-dollar rack, where we found a tank top with the twin towers on the front, surrounded by fireworks and the word “Celebrate!” (On Saturday, I walked by the same store, and “We Are The World” was blaring through its doors.) Wednesday night I had a beer with Blender fact checker Gabe Soria, who said he’d turned to Al Green’s I’m Still In Love With You the night before to reassure himself there was still something good and beautiful and unassailable in the world. I wished I had a taste for spiritual redemption myself.
And though once in a while as the week wore on my internal soundtrack would reach for “Rivers Of Babylon”—damn right we remember Zion—more often, especially while devouring the Times, I was hearing the Clash’s “Washington Bullets” (the only song I know featuring Afghan rebels), Breaking Circus’s “Knife In The Marathon” (the only song I know featuring Middle Eastern terrorists brandishing sharp objects), Baader Meinhof’s “Meet Me At The Airport” (“waste them without mercy”), Emily XYZ’s “Who Shot Sadat” (thanks to Osama bin Laden’s ties to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad), Brooks & Dunn’s “Only In America” (both the hardest-rocking and most blatantly flag-waving hit on any radio format this summer, now guaranteed to become a national anthem), the Butthole Surfers’ “Jet Fighter” (anti-war-against-Allah song of the year), and the Cure’s sadly inevitable “Killing An Arab” (which maybe Ted Nugent will finally cover). None of them explained a thing. But you never ask questions when God’s on your side.
- Village Voice, 18 September 2001