Teenage Fanclub.

This isn't going to be that much of an entry. I just want to talk about one thing real quick here.

About two hours ago, I queued up four or so albums at once on my computer's mp3 player program. I was planning to do some reading for a few hours, and I didn't want the music to stop anytime soon. At the end of the list, I tacked on something called "Four Thousand Seven Hundred And Sixty-Six Seconds: A Shortcut To Teenage Fanclub". This is the kind of record that would be considered a greatest-hits collection for a lot of other bands. But the sad fact is that, at least here in America, Teenage Fanclub can't be said to have had any real hits. Here in America, the most accurate term for this 21 track single-disc compilation is "career retrospective."

I've been into Teenage Fanclub since early in my high school career. Sixteen years ago, to be exact. They had already released one album by then, 1989's "A Catholic Education", but it had a low profile--it was on Matador back when Matador was really an indie label--and therefore I hadn't heard or even heard about it. But one of my best friends had, and so he knew to pick up their second album and major-label debut, "Bandwagonesque", when it came out in 1991.

That's how I heard Teenage Fanclub for the first time. The friend in question and I exchanged Christmas gifts that year, the sort of gifts that teenage boys who haven't yet entered the work force give each other--mix tapes. He gave me two, one of which was actually a mix tape, and the other of which featured "Bandwagonesque" taking up the entirety of side one. I got the tape from him on the final day before the Christmas holiday began, and I heard it for the first time that night, sitting in darkness in the back of my parents' car. We were on our way to my grandparents' house for a holiday visit, and I had my Walkman on as a way to kill the boredom the two-hour drive would induce in me. When I heard track three, "December", with its chorus of "she don't even care, but I would die for her," it was all over for me. I fell in love with Teenage Fanclub, and with power pop in general. Every album made by white boys with distorted guitars, harmonized vocals, and mournful lyrics about unrequited love that I eagerly consumed over the next few years came onto my radar thanks to that initial experience with Teenage Fanclub. Matthew Sweet, The Posies, Big Star, Velvet Crush, Cheap Trick... I heard it all because I heard Teenage Fanclub through headphones, that night in the backseat of my parents' car.

"December" isn't on "Four Thousand Seven Hundred And Sixty-Six Seconds", but it begins with the same song that "Bandwagonesque" begins with: "The Concept", a six minute pop tune that starts off catchy and midtempo before downshifting halfway through into a long coda, complete with violins and wordless oohing and aahing vocals. Just hearing that song takes me back to 1991, when I first learned the awesome power generated by combining two of my bigtime musical loves--melodic love songs, and big distorted guitars. "Bandwagonesque" was actually named the best album of 1991 by Spin magazine, in a decision that's widely derided today, even by the magazine itself, as a huge "what-were-we-thinking" fuckup. Nirvana's "Nevermind", which came in at number two, is seen in retrospect as the blatantly obvious choice. But what's lost in this discussion is the fact that "Bandwagonesque" is honestly a better album. Only slightly--"Nevermind" is outstanding, there's no doubt about that. But when the two albums are set alongside each other, the brilliance of "Bandwagonesque" shines through. At least, if you ask me. To this day, given the choice, I'll reach for it first every time. Granted, "Nevermind" was far more important to musical development. Hell, it changed everything. It's one of the most important albums in the history of rock music. There's no arguing that. But how is anyone supposed to know that within six months of an album's release? That kind of thing is pretty much impossible to predict. All Spin's staff had as a basis for comparison at the time was how much they liked each album. They liked "Bandwagonesque" slightly better, and to this day I think they were right.

Sorry, just felt the need to clear the air on that particular subject. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some more reading to do.

Teenage Fanclub - The Concept
Teenage Fanclub - Star Sign



Buffalo Tom.

Summer seems to be coming to an end here in Richmond. This is the American South, so it seems a bit strange for the nights to be getting cold, for the sizzle to be leaving the air, with a few days still left in the official calendar period set aside for this season. Generally, this part of the country still feels like summer until at least mid-October, sometimes quite a bit later. And I can't imagine that things won't warm up again sometime in the next week or two, and give us the requisite indian summer that'll carry us through until the usual time when it cools off for good. But right now, it's almost 2 in the morning, and the air blowing through my bedroom window has a chill to it.

Which makes it fitting that I'm listening to the new Buffalo Tom album, their first in a decade, which I downloaded last week. Man... normally I wouldn't care at all, but I feel like a bad person even typing those words in the same sentence. Downloaded. Buffalo Tom. Buffalo Tom are not only one of my favorite bands of all time, I feel a serious psychic connection to their music. I own every one of their previous six albums, half of them in multiple formats. I am a true believer where this band is concerned. Several of my friends learned the hard way years ago that a great way to set me off is to say, "Oh, Buffalo Tom? That band from 'My So-Called Life'? That was a real band? I thought they were made up just for the show." Holy shit, that drives me crazy. Therefore, of course, I feel like an asshole for not having already ponied up the $15 it'll take to get me a copy of their new CD. Bill Janovitz, Chris Colbourn, and Tom Maginnis need my money. So what's my problem?

Well, maybe it's the same thing that's making me listen to this album so much lately. I'm just not feeling all that great right now. I can't help but blame the change in the weather, either--this whole thing started at the same time that everything cooled off by ten or so degrees. Fall and, especially, winter always bum me out. I don't know what it is about those seasons, but they just feel lonely. It's like, whenever things start getting a bit colder, I start thinking, "Well, another year is drawing to a close, and what do I have to show for it?" Not a good question for me to ask, ever. Life feels pretty good on a day to day basis. In fact, ever since the bad-date incident last December (see my blog entry pertaining to Drowningman's "My First Restraining Order"), when after a week of feeling like cutting my insides out with a rusty screwdriver, I stepped back and said, "This is fucking ridiculous and I'm tired of feeling like crap," I've been doing quite well. But I can't examine anything that should stand as a long term indicator of how my life is doing without feeling crappy. Let's look at the facts--I'm over 30 and so incredibly single that I haven't actually had a girlfriend in nearly three years. I tipped the scales at 230 pounds last week, more than I've ever weighed in my life, and I can see it in my gut. Granted, since I am built like a refrigerator, it doesn't show on me the way that weight would show on a lot of people, but it doesn't make me feel good. I still haven't gotten paid for a single piece of my writing--and despite constantly swearing that I'm going to try to make that happen, fact is, I haven't even sent anything to anyone. The novel I started working on in January still consists of less than 10,000 words, some of which are in terribly rough form. See? I shouldn't do things like this, ever. It's not a good idea.

Even before they wrote what is, to my mind, their most insightful song, I always associated Buffalo Tom with this feeling. There's a yearning, mournful quality to many of their best songs, which often mix minor-key riffs with a pastoral feel that always makes me think of drving through the Virginia countryside where I grew up, and laid over all of this are brilliant lyrics that use vague yet perfect phrases to encapsulate a mood that could occur in any one of dozens of circumstances. Man, that's a convoluted sentence. I hope it made sense, because I'm not editing this one at ALL. Anyway, the perfect Buffalo Tom song, the one I would play for anyone who didn't know anything about them to explain everything that they might need to know, is "Summer", track two from their fifth album, "Sleepy Eyed". It has that minor-key mournful thing going on, and its chorus is: "Summer's gone, we've wasted every day." That's it, right there--in those six words, everything I feel every year when the weather starts turning colder. And they have a lot of other songs with that feel, too. All of them are brilliant in their own way. "Summer" may be the Platonic form for a Buffalo Tom song, but it's only in my top ten or so of their songs. There are some I like significantly better than it.

I'm pretty sure that track one from their new album, "Three Easy Pieces", will be joining that list. "Bad Phone Call" begins Bill Janovitz singing a sort of wordless sigh, his guitar feeding back underneath of it, just for a second, until the whole band comes in with a classic minor-key Buffalo Tom melody. It's one of their slower tunes, which used to be a bad sign back on the first few albums when they still hadn't figured out how to do slow as well as they always did uptempo. But ever since "Larry", from 1991's "Let Me Come Over", Buffalo Tom have been proving over and over that they can do slow material well, and indeed, make it just as classic as their faster songs. "Bad Phone Call" does that musically, and lyrically uses the indelible image that makes up the title as a metaphor, a jumping-off point for a tale of dramatic, painful depression. As usual, they don't get specific enough for the listener to really pin down what exactly they're singing about, but they use this vagueness to hit upon a deeper truth, in a manner that brings to mind Raymond Carver, in some weird way (cue thousands of literature students scoffing). This song also has the distinction of being the first Buffalo Tom track on which both Bill Janovitz and Chris Colbourn sing lead at different points. After that first wordless chorus, in which Janovitz sings by himself, Colbourn starts to sing lyrics over the sad sighing Janovitz vocals. "I'll leave the boxes on the kitchen floor, and then I'll lock the door", he says, which could be a reference to anything, but, as with the song's title, is an evocative phrase just on its own.

Things pick up with the title track, a Colbourn lead vocal that's driven by a throbbing, melodic bass line which picks out a counterpoint to the descending guitar chords Janovitz plays overtop of it. This song moves quickly, and mixes that same old Dinosaur Jr-ish distorted-classic-rock feel that's stuck with these guys since J Mascis produced their first album with a hint of something more British, maybe even a bit of Creation Records influence. Maybe I'm hearing things, but it's definitely at least a little bit different from Colbourn's usual songwriting style, and since I don't generally like his songs quite as much as Janovitz's, this is a welcome divergence. Janovitz gets up to his usual brilliant tricks on the classic Buffalo Tom rocker "Bottom Of The Rain", which presents another classic chorus: "All the questions that I never got to ask you, like: Where'd they go? Where are all those golden years?" A sentiment that's only too easy to understand for me--and will probably bite that much harder when the birthday I'm on the wrong side of is not my 30th but my 40th, as is the case for these guys. On the song's bridge, Janovitz talks of a "phone call from a friend so far away, asking me if I remember days..." He sounds like he's experiencing a sort of bittersweet nostalgia, remembering times that may not have been that great, but when he definitely felt more alive, more vital than he does now. Or maybe that's me, projecting. Because dudes, college was hell. But I can't hear this record without sort of wishing I was back there. I want the chance to try again. To feel the things that seemed so pure, so important then. These days, everything is so dulled out. I used to fall in love with so many people all the time... now I don't fall in love with anyone. And I think that's what Janovitz is trying to evoke with the next song, "Lost Downtown." Again, maybe. It's hard to tell. But this song seems to be about trying to find a way to see the overly familiar with fresh eyes, to reconnect with something vital that has been lost in day to day routines. "Gotta have some souls around me to see, right now." Yeah, that's another feeling I know, and miss--maybe the reason I never fall in love with anyone anymore is because I don't get forced by circumstance into big social groups that I haven't chosen myself anymore. No more school hallways in which to spy pretty girls that I don't know, but who might know a friend of a friend that can introduce me. These days, the only times I feel like I'm seeing anyone new are when I'm working, behind the counter in the bookstore in the upscale shopping district downtown. And lots of times, I wish I could get up from behind that counter and just walk out the door into that mass of people. Am I projecting again? I think I've always projected on this band. It's probably why I love them so much.

But it's not something random--I didn't pick them to project onto for no reason. Their songs have an evocative feel that I just can't deny. Something about the way they put chords together into melodies, the way they connect melodies together into songs, the lyrics they write and sing over those songs, it all combines to bring reactions about deep down inside of me, on a level that I don't completely understand. It feels like this band unlocks a piece of my soul that very few other musicians have any access to. And I love a lot of music, so that's a pretty strong statement for me to make, but I stand by it completely. And it's even more remarkable that they could disappear for a fucking DECADE and come back so strong, with an album that's as good as any others they've ever released (OK, maybe not as good as "Let Me Come Over" and "Sleepy Eyed", but better than "Smitten" and probably better than "Birdbrain" too--though don't get me wrong, I fuckin love both of those albums like they're my children). I've barely even mentioned the actual songs on here, and what has come out has been disorganized babble for the most part--I know, I can tell when what I'm writing in this blog isn't exactly deathless prose. But that's where my head's at right now, because I'm kind of a mess, and Buffalo Tom can't really do anything to help that.

But they can make me feel better. Because they understand. I hear it in every note they play. And thank god for that.

Buffalo Tom - Bad Phone Call
Buffalo Tom - Bottom Of The Rain



New Miserable Experience.

I have to bang this out quick, because it's late and I'm tired, plus I already have sore eyes from staring at a computer screen all day. But the words are here and late night has been prime writing time lately, so I'm afraid that if I wait til the morning this will all be gone. So here we go.

There's a style of music I really love, and it's put me in line for a lot of shit over the years. I realize that this sounds like the beginning to at least half of my pieces on modern emo bands, but that's not what I'm talking about this time. Instead, I'm talking about a style of music that I generally think of as "heartland rock", though I don't know if that characterization is in any way valid. The jumping-off point for all of this is Buffalo Tom, a band who started out combining Dinosaur Jr's hard-rock distortion with the pastoral, melodic songwriting sense of early R.E.M. and midperiod Replacements. I fucking love Buffalo Tom, even the records that are critically panned, like "Smitten" (typing this reminds me--they put out a reunion album this year, didn't they? I need to get off my ass and pick up a copy). Other bands in this style that I love, in order from most typically respected to least: Uncle Tupelo, Vigilantes Of Love, and The Goo Goo Dolls. Yes, I said The Goo Goo Dolls. When that song "Name" (an admittedly terrible track that is by far the worst song on the album from which it was taken) got really big, I'd had "A Boy Named Goo" for a year, and had to deal with a whole shitload of my friends suddenly realizing that THIS was the band whose album I'd been stoked about the previous summer. It only got worse with the release of "Dizzy Up The Girl", featuring "Iris" (which I also hate), "Slide", and "Black Balloon" (which I unreservedly love). Their best material was behind them at that point, but I bought that album anyway, and loved enough of it to keep it to this very day. I bought its follow up, "Gutter Flower", too, and I'm not going to apologize for that either (especially since it's actually slightly better than "Dizzy Up The Girl").

But I'm not here to discuss any of those bands. Instead I'm here to discuss another band in that style, one that, until recently, I was unwilling to give a real chance. I'm talking about the Gin Blossoms.

Maybe a lot of you know the tragic story of the Gin Blossoms and their doomed original guitarist and songwriter, Doug Hopkins. But somehow, despite the fact that I knew and liked the song "Hey Jealousy" for a good year or so before it even hit the pop charts, I never heard that story until last year. See, Doug Hopkins formed the Gin Blossoms, and he wrote a lot of the songs on their first album, "New Miserable Experience". That album came out in 1992, and "Hey Jealousy" was the single from it. But it stiffed at first. I saw the video on 120 Minutes--the original video, which is black-and-white throughout and alternates between shots of the original Gin Blossoms lineup playing the song in an empty room and shots out the window of a car driving around a small desert town--loved it, and taped it. But it only aired two or three times, then dropped out of sight. Until a year later, when "Hey Jealousy" somehow rose like a phoenix from the ashes and hit the Top 40 in a big way. The black and white video ran a few more times, but soon it was replaced by a full-color video that only featured the head of vocalist Robin Wilson, singing the song in front of shots of cars driving through alleys of yet another small desert town. "Hey Jealousy" was the feel-good hit of the summer of 1993, but what very few people knew at the time was that Doug Hopkins' drinking, which had always been somewhat of a problem for him, had gotten so bad that the Gin Blossoms had kicked him out. Now the band that he had started but was no longer in was climbing the charts with a song that he had written. Apparently this was too much for Hopkins to deal with, and he committed suicide in December of 1993.

I finally heard this story a couple months ago, and it really struck a chord with me. As someone who's struggled with depression for most of my life, stories like this always resonate, especially when they concern creative types. It's way too easy for me to imagine myself in their place. And it also stuck with me because it explained something that I'd noticed about The Gin Blossoms--while I have always loved "Hey Jealousy", nothing else I've heard by them has ever come close to that standard. Now I knew why--the band had stuck around for a few more albums, had a few more hits, but their main songwriter was dead. They'd had to learn how to write music all over again, and they'd lost their fire. Instead of driving heartland rock, they produced bland midwestern pop of the sort that adult contemporary radio laps up. These days, when I hear the Gin Blossoms on the radio, it's those stations who are playing them, and it's later hits like "Follow You Down" or "Til I Hear It From You" that they're playing. No wonder I thought they'd lost it after "Hey Jealousy". In an all-too-real way, they had.

A few days ago, I was sitting around bored at work, thinking about this, and it hit me--Doug Hopkins had written and played on not only "Hey Jealousy", but all of "New Miserable Experience." There might be some other really great Gin Blossoms songs out there that I'd never heard. So I downloaded the entire album--you know, just to check it out. Sure enough, there were a bunch of really great songs on it. It isn't a flawless album, by any means--each side (and this album is definitely from an era when albums still had sides, though that era probably ended less than 5 years after it was made) ends with rather goofy genre exercises, the self-explanatory "Cajun Song" and the country ballad "Cheatin'". Not all of the songs were written by Doug Hopkins, either, and while I do find merit in some of the ones he wasn't involved in, all of my favorites on the record were either written or co-written by Hopkins.

I want to start off my appraisal of these songs by talking about "Hey Jealousy." I'm sure you've heard it a million times, but I don't care--there's a lot of depth and emotion to this song, and if you've never considered it as anything more than just a mid-90s radio hit, you haven't caught everything that it has to offer up. First off, the lyrics. This song tells the story of a middle-aged alcoholic whose best days are admittedly behind him trying to gain some small measure of redemption from wooing back an old flame. Even if you only know one or two lines, I'm sure you've caught on to this much. [Side note: It was in considering the lyrics to this song that I finally came to a conscious realization that I somehow never seized upon before--I know what a gin blossom is. It's a red spot on a longtime alcoholic's face, usually found upon the nose, where a blood vessel has broken under the surface. The name of The Gin Blossoms has made me think of flowers for the past 14 years--which I'm sure was their intention in picking the name. Now that I've seen past the intentional misdirection of this connotation, the true meaning has revealed itself, like the bursting of an overripe fruit that's hidden beneath a leaf and avoided harvest until too late. Now that I've seen it, I'll never un-see it. "New Miserable Experience" seems a much more fitting album title in this context.] But a bald factual statement of the lyrical content misses the poetry inherent in this depressing tale. There's a reason that these lines stick in your head, come back to you even when alternative rock radio hasn't wafted them into your ears for nearly half a decade. "Do you think it'd be all right if I could just crash here tonight? You can see I'm in no shape for driving, and anyway, I've got no place to go." It's an admission born from despair. There's nothing really to lose, because whether he asks or not, he's probably gonna be sleeping on the back seat of his car. "If I hadn't blown the whole thing years ago, I might not be alone." But he did, and he is, and there's no real reason to parse this out any further, because you know these lines, and you know what they mean. But just humor me for one second longer, while we consider the chorus: "Tomorrow we can drive around this town, and let the cops chase us around. The past is gone but something might be found to take its place." Have you ever felt like all of your big dreams had been beaten out of you? Have you ever felt like even the best thing you could really imagine having wouldn't be that great? Have you ever found yourself romanticizing something that you know totally sucked while it was happening, and will totally suck if it happens again, just to try and give your life some little tiny bit of meaning? Just to try and believe that you can have a good time, even when you know that the times are pretty much always bad? I'm not a longtime alcoholic--other than the wine in church (back when I still believed in that sort of thing, which was a long time ago), I've never taken a drink in my life. But I know what Doug Hopkins is talking about here. You do too, even if you won't admit it.

"Hey Jealousy" is the first song I ever heard off "New Miserable Experience", but it's not the first song on the album, it's the second. The first, "Lost Horizons", is another Hopkins-penned tune, one I'd never heard before I downloaded the album. The second I put the copy I'd burned of "New Miserable Experience" into my stereo and it started to play, I knew I'd been right to obtain this album. "Lost Horizons" is more melodic and less driving than "Hey Jealousy", but it's similar, and it's a perfect beginning for the album. Its opening lines are brilliant, establishing the tone of the entire album by delineating its setting and its boundaries: "The last horizons I can see are filled with bars and factories, and in them all we fight to stay awake." By beginning in this way, "Lost Horizons" brings to mind another opening track to another debut album: "Graveyard Shift" by Uncle Tupelo. We're in Arizona now instead of Georgia, with the slight shifts in mood and feel that that change of setting brings, but the fundamental picture being painted here is the same. The song's chorus explains the desperation of its characters in the same terms as another first-LP Uncle Tupelo song, that being "Whiskey Bottle". "You drink enough of anything, you make this world new again," sings Robin Wilson, giving the words of Doug Hopkins voice in a beautiful downcast tone. "I'm drunk drunk drunk in the gardens and the graves." Something about that thrice-repeated "drunk" is important, even if I can't put my finger on exactly why. It's funny, how I, the longtime straight-edge kid, can always connect so deeply with drinking songs. That's something else I can't exactly explain. Ah, well.

The second verse of "Lost Horizon" is, if anything, even bleaker than the first. "She had nothing left to say, so she said she loved me," sings Wilson. "I smiled and was grateful for the lie." He barely even pronounces the final word, and I actually thought he was saying "love" the first few times I heard the song. When I realized what he was actually saying, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Not only does it change the meaning, it gives it gravity. "I smiled and was grateful for the love" is trite, a heartland rock Hallmark sentiment. But change it to "grateful for the lie" and it's poignant on multiple levels. Imagine knowing even as someone is pledging their love to you that it's not real, and not even having the strength to call it out, to refuse the phony sentiment; imagine needing to hear it so badly that you don't even care if its true or not. It shouldn't be hard to imagine, after all--we've all been there. There's something beautiful about Hopkins' ability to call up these kinds of images with such short, simple lines, lines that are if anything more prose than poetry, despite their being set to the line-breaks of the song form. That takes talent. Which, again, is a tough thing to consider, knowing the story--knowing that he was dead before I was even old enough to buy cigarettes.

"Found Out About You", another Hopkins tune, was the follow-up single to "Hey Jealousy," and was even a minor hit if I remember correctly. Unlike "Hey Jealousy", I'd never fixated on it enough to remember the song through the long years during which radio ignored it--maybe the fact that radio didn't stick with it once it fell off the charts is the reason why, because when I heard it again, the chorus jumped back into my head as if it had been there the whole time, 13 years of not even remembering that this song existed eliminated at a stroke. The lyrics to this one aren't as brilliant as the two songs discussed previously--they're a lost-love song of the type that's been written a million times before and since, and there's nothing really groundbreaking about any of it. But that chorus--"Whispers at the bus stop, well, I've heard about nights at the school yard. I found out about you"--it's catchy, and it's an undeniably clever turn of phrase. A few of those show up in "Hold Me Down" as well, which was co-written by Hopkins and Wilson. It's hard to know who was responsible for what with this song; it'd be easy to guess that vocalist Wilson wrote the words while guitarist Hopkins wrote the music, but Hopkins's name is first on the songwriting credit, and Wilson was originally the band's rhythm guitarist (before switching places with original vocalist Jesse Valenzuela, which happened before they'd ever recorded anything), so who knows. I prefer to think that Hopkins wrote at least some of these lyrics--after all, if Wilson was capable of producing lines like "So I guess I might have just been dreaming when I thought I heard myself say no, and anyway it looks like no one heard me, so here I go." Maybe I'm wrong about this, because as we've established, I don't drink and I don't do drugs, but I think this song is about doing cocaine, and specifically about not wanting to do it, but finding it hard to resist. The chorus is different every time, and here's the one that comes after the second verse: "So remember when the doors swing open, and the drinks are moved around; when half the party moves into the bathroom, hold me down. When we're at the tail end of the party, and Dr. Feelgood comes around; anytime the pickings look too easy, hold me down." Is this a textbook cry for help, or what? How terrible must the rest of the Gin Blossoms felt when Doug Hopkins killed himself? I almost want to write them a letter and bitch them out, but I know there's no point--as hard as I ever could be on any of them, they were surely ten times harder on themselves when it all went down. Maybe that's why their second album, which came out a year after Hopkins died, was entitled, "Congratulations... I'm Sorry". Their attempt to say what they felt they should have said when he was still around, perhaps? I'll give them one thing--they found a succinct way of putting it.

What about the rest of the album? Well, those four songs mentioned above are probably the best. In addition to all of them, Hopkins also wrote or co-wrote the album's final two songs, the near-ballad "Pieces of the Night", and the aforementioned country track "Cheatin" (which, no matter how generic and ultimately pointless the music is, has a really great lyric). I feel like he wrote a seventh song too, but I don't have the credits in front of me right now, so I can't be sure. Some of the songs he didn't write are decent, too, particularly "Mrs. Rita" and "Hands Are Tied". "Until I Fall Away" is the weakest serious track here, and it's a foreshadowing of what was to come once Hopkins was gone. This sort of soft-rock balladry is OK for a song or two per album--it's enough to bridge the gap between stronger Hopkins compositions here--but once Hopkins was gone and Wilson and Valenzuela were left to fill entire albums by themselves, they had to use songs like this as singles, and they were not strong enough to be worth it (the mid-90s American buying public's opinion to the contrary). At points on "New Miserable Experience", The Gin Blossoms not only reach for greatness but grasp it. It's unfortunate that Doug Hopkins couldn't have hung around a little longer and shown us a little more of his talent. One thing's for sure, though--without him, The Gin Blossoms were a pale shadow of their former selves.



My social life's a dud.

The Music Machine were a garage rock band who had one big hit in 1967, a two minute track called "Talk Talk". Those of you who've heard the "Nuggets" box set, or have listened to plenty of oldies radio in your time, have no doubt heard it. It's a minimalist blast of fuzztone punk that mostly consists of a rhythmic pounding on the same two chords. The stereo mix is one of those early ones that seems to exist only so that the label guy can say "look, we have stereo!"--one of those songs where the basic tracks are all in one speaker, with only the vocals and the occasional guitar lead in the other. On the chorus, the glottal, snarling vocalist proclaims his alienation in the simplest, most direct of terms: "My social life's a dud. My name is really mud." Rather than fading out after the second and final chorus, the band returns to the chord that begins the song, pounding on it over and over as the vocalist screams the song's title. It ends cold after four of these repetitions, coming in a second shy of the two-minute mark. It's incredibly distinctive--if you've heard it more than once, you know it. By now, you probably have it stuck in your head.

The thing about bands like The Music Machine, as I've mentioned many times before in my frequent babblings about garage rock, is that you can never tell if any of their other material will be any good. I love "Psychotic Reaction" by the Count Five, but, wild imaginings of Lester Bangs to the contrary, it's pretty much the only worthwhile thing they ever recorded. I had an inkling that The Music Machine might be different, though, due to the reputation in garage rock circles of their mercurial vocalist and main songwriter, Sean Bonniwell. Nonetheless, I waited a long time to check their other stuff out--after all, there's never a lack of newly uncovered garage rock bands to dig into, especially if you read Ugly Things, or the writings of Richie Unterberger (or, like me, both). I finally got around to doing so when the new issue of Ugly Things came in the mail and it featured a cover story, by Unterberger himself, about The Music Machine. I knew that reading it would make me want to listen to their music, so I decided to get a jump on things by downloading anything and everything I could find by them.

I ended up with the only official album by the original Music Machine lineup, "Turn On The Music Machine", as well as a 20 track compilation of recordings released under the name Bonniwell Music Machine (what Sean Bonniwell called later incarnations of the group, after the rest of the original lineup quit on him in late 1967), "Beyond The Garage". From reading the Ugly Things article, I've now learned that most of the tracks on the Bonniwell Music Machine album were recorded by the original Music Machine lineup anyway, just not released until after the rest of them had quit. This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that the Bonniwell Music Machine album is quite a bit better than "Turn On The Music Machine." The latter was rush-released after the success of the "Talk Talk" single, and it contains nearly as many tossed-off covers (included without the band's input, and much to their chagrin) as original Sean Bonniwell compositions. Of the five covers, only "See See Rider" is up to the standards of the Bonniwell originals, though "Hey Joe" is close. "96 Tears" and The Beatles' "Taxman" sound phoned in, and the version of Neil Diamond's "Cherry Cherry" leaves the band's standard sound completely behind, instead bringing in flutes, crooning vocals, and sweetly strummed, clean guitars. It's godawful, and unfortunately, Bonniwell's "Some Other Drum" isn't much better. For the most part, though, the original tunes are great--"Trouble" and "Masculine Intuition" in particular have the same dark, ugly punk-before-it-officially-existed vibe as "Talk Talk", while "The People In Me" and "Wrong" are based around gloomy, minor chord melodies that communicate that "something's not quite right here" feel that was often the flipside to the desire of the 60s counterculture to break the shackles of society's prevailing ideals. The best tracks on "Turn On" remind me of that comment in that Decibel article I spent some time discussing a couple weeks ago, about "a bummer that slaps the hippie dream in the face." No matter how much flower-power crap was floating around during that decade, and no matter how much people like the editorial staff of Rolling Stone or my then-Woodstock-attending/now-Republican dad want to remember the 60s as a time of nothing but love, peace, and groovy times, there was plenty of this kind of resentment and alienation in the mix back then too, and it's that stuff that really calls to me in my continued investigations of the 60s musical era.

A quote from original Music Machine guitarist Mark Landon, taken from the Ugly Things article, actually reinforces what I'm talking about, and proves that it was a conscious thing on the part of at least The Music Machine, and, one would guess, probably some of the other bands that were around back then, too. Landon: "I used to go and listen to other bands all the time, and they'd play original material. And again, we're in the age of flower power. It was all meandering drug-crazed political slop. It was just terrible. I hated a lot of that stuff. [Sean]'s songs, to me, had more focus and more melodic content, and a lot less meandering. Music in those days tended to just wander around. I listened to Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" recently, and the whole thing is just so drug-tinged, self-indulgent, and meandering; it just goes on and on and on. I guess it had its place, but it wasn't what I liked. There were other groups that did that kind of music, I thought, but so much more focused. Groups like the Yardbirds, for instance. To me, you couldn't compare the Yardbirds to the local groups here in LA at that time. When I heard Sean's stuff, I thought to myself, 'I like this. I like the focus of it. I like the fact that there's an intensity. It's not just, look how stoned we can all get.' That was important to me. I wasn't a stoner, and had no intention of being one, and none of us were. Even though you had to pretend sometimes. Because in those days, if people offered you a joint and you said no, they'd go like, 'What's the matter, are you some kind of narc? What are you, the man?' Everybody was then living in this drug culture. We hated it. Don't get me wrong, we partied a little bit too. But not as a matter of 24/7 around the clock walking down the street being stoned all the time--working being stoned, in the studio being stoned, everybody just being stoned all the time. Yeah, everybody smoked a little joint now and then. That was the times. But our focus wasn't about drugs. Our focus wasn't about flower power. It wasn't about peace, love, and Hare Krishna. Our focus was about playing hard rock and roll. That's what we wanted to do--our own kind of rock and roll, our own sound and our own style. That's what it was about."

Ok, yeah, that was a long quote, but how badass is that? Even in 1967, these guys saw the down side of the whole hippie thing, and they wanted no part of it.

The recordings that they made after their rush-released album, the ones that ended up on the Bonniwell Music Machine album, and are now available on the "Beyond The Garage" reissue (and, apparently, on the more recent double-disc "The Ultimate Turn On" [by the way, I don't usually like puns, but this one is pretty creative, so it gets my approval], which I haven't heard yet), do an even better job of creating an original, heavy rock and roll sound. "Bottom Of The Soul", an original Music Machine recording eventually released as a Bonniwell Music Machine single, begins this album with a thundering bass riff that drives heavy, fuzz-laced verses that contrast nicely with the song's more melodic--but still dark--chorus. Tracks like the harpsichord-tinged "Absolutely Positively," the gloriously raw "Double Yellow Line", and the driving "No Girl Gonna cry" are all at least the equal of tracks like "Talk Talk", "The People In Me", and "Trouble". But The Music Machine's best moment comes on track 7, "The Eagle Never Hurts The Fly", a song on which Bonniwell and company break away from their typical pounding garage sound to move into the realm of studio experimentation. The song features all sorts of incidental sounds buried in the mix, from quietly lurking harmonicas to screeching duck calls. Bassist Keith Olson tunes his bass to some incredibly low registers, and at strategic moments, unleashes a throbbing low note that could shake the fillings out of your teeth at proper volumes. Meanwhile, Mark Landon drop various lead lines throughout the track, sometimes playing through reverb, sometimes fuzz, and sometimes both. Sean Bonniwell's vocals are impassioned, moving beyond his usual angry, declamatory style into a pleading blues shout that calls Eric Burdon of The Animals to mind. Apparently this song was one of several unsuccessful attempts by The Music Machine to follow up the "Talk Talk" single. While no one can deny its brilliance, it's hard to believe that anyone thought this track could make it into heavy rotation on the AM stations of 1967. It's a shame; perhaps if The Music Machine could have had a second hit single, they would have stayed together longer and made even more great records. Thankfully, there are at least these few tracks floating around out there for our enjoyment. It's discoveries like this that keep me digging deeper and deeper into the pantheon of obscure 60s garage rock, and indeed, music in general. I'm sure there are plenty more still out there waiting for me, and I look forward to discovering them. For right now, though, these Music Machine tracks will more than tide me over.

The Music Machine - Trouble
The (Bonniwell) Music Machine - Bottom Of The Soul
The (Bonniwell) Music Machine - The Eagle Never Hurts The Fly