...pull the pin from my hair and kiss it all goodbye.
This is how Copper's lone full-length, "Drag Queen", begins. It's opening track, "Sissy", starts off slow and delicate, driven by guitar arpeggios and Meaghan Ball's voice singing words of sweet desire. "You're so beautiful. This time I just know it's you. You're the one for me, and I think I'm falling in love again." Based on this first verse, you might expect some sort of glorious love song, swelling into string-laden crescendos, or something like that... but no, because as the verse ends, the guitarists launch into an uptempo riff, and the drummer soon follows them with a near-hardcore speed beat, pulling the entire band into the most frenetic song of their short career. And it's fitting, based on what Meaghan starts to sing at that point: "Hello wonderful. It's 5:01 and you haven't called me at all." Ah, see, now we're at the real crux of the matter--"Sissy" isn't a syrupy song about falling in love, it's an uptight, frustrated tune about getting jilted. "I've written you letters, sent you pictures of me when I was a child, with a smile. I've given you all that I had, that's really no lie." Meaghan sings this quickly, rushing to keep up with the drummer's pounding snare, a beat that one can imagine approximating the tapping of her heels on her bedroom floor as she paces, anxiously awaiting a call that won't come. After another verse, she proclaims, "I think I'm falling out of love again." The band drops into a half-speed chorus, then breaks down to a quiet interlude, over which Meaghan now wails "All I ever wanted was for you to call me back!" As she sings this lyric, the guitarists, who play almost nothing during the quiet section, stomp on their distortion pedals and start blasting out noisy chords in a manner worthy of the best shoegaze bands of the early 90s--bands which were doubtless big influences on Copper's sound.
This influence is even more obvious later, on the album's title track. "Drag Queen" begins with 10 seconds of grating feedback before the drummer counts the band into the actual song. On the verses, the guitarists play low, distorted chords as the bass player plays a melodic line that is an octave above rather than the usual octave below the guitar chords. This gives the entire song a sense of floating in the air ethereally, as if it's a pillow buoying Meaghan's vocal into the air, where it reverbs around the room. She sings from a place that sounds both hazy and scared, which she confirms almost immediately: "You stretch your hand out to frighten me. You're frightening me, I'm quivering, I'm shivering, I'm shuddering, I can't even breathe." Unlike "Sissy", the backdrop here, though noisy, is also slow and downbeat. On the choruses, the guitarists crank out more feedback noise, even as Meaghan sings, "My palms hit the wall, my face hits the tile. My head is spinning." Something bad is happening here, and it's not really defined, but it's effects are made quite clear: "I can't go on, all my hope is gone. My integrity's lost. My boundaries are crossed." The second chorus ends just after the song's halfway point, and when it does, everything drops out except for the drums. This is when the song changes completely. The first thing to come back in is the vocal, and without guitars to give the impression of floating and reverberation, Meaghan's voice loses the hazy tone of the first part of the song. Instead she sounds clearheaded, and sings her next lines in a dry, declarative tone: "I'll pull myself up, wipe the mascara to the side, pull the pin from my hair and kiss it all goodbye." At the word "all", the drums drop out and the guitars and bass return, and suddenly the last phrase, "kiss it all goodbye", seems once again to be floating ethereally. However, the tone change has been too much for the guitars to overcome, and even the ambient reverberation as Meaghan repeats, over and over, "I'll kiss it all goodbye", still isn't enough to put her back in the place she was in for the first half of the song. Now, instead of frightened and vulnerable, she sounds like she has reclaimed power, pulled herself out of a bad situation. But what does it mean? What do lines about wiping away mascara and letting down an elaborate hairdo really refer to, especially in the context of the song's title, "Drag Queen"? Well, Meaghan Ball isn't here to ask, but I have a theory: in this song, "Drag Queen" is a phrase intended to evoke female impersonation, but it's a song about Meaghan Ball, herself a female, feeling trapped by the impersonation of a feminine ideal that she is forced by society to imitate on a day to day basis. It's interesting, because at the time that "Drag Queen" was released, there were really only two comfortable roles for a girl in the hardcore scene to assume: that of a short-haired tomboy who dressed androgynously and moshed it up just like the boys, or that of a glamour queen who stood to the side in perfect makeup and clothes, with only a slight retro aesthetic to differentiate her from any mainstream preppie girl. Contemporary press photos indicate that Meaghan Ball fit the latter role, but the subtle statement "Drag Queen" appears to be making is one of discomfort with that role, and the trap it can be for a woman attempting to interact with men as an equal. And it may seem odd to say this, but this song has always really hit home for me. As a boy in that same hardcore scene, I never felt comfortable with the crew-cut, tough guy role that was expected of me, either. And yet, where else was there to go, for me or for Meaghan? I never really found a satisfactory answer to that, and I think "Drag Queen"s air of uncertainty and fear stems from the fact that Meaghan never did either.
Copper seemed like a promising band based on their first single, but "Drag Queen" only partly delivered on that promise, seeming more like half an album that was padded out to full-length. Four of its nine songs can definitely be interpreted as filler; first, the rerecordings of "Freckle" and "Tuesday's Child", which are definitely not as good as the original versions, and then the final two songs on the album, a cover of Morrissey's "There's a Place In Hell Reserved For Me And My Friends", and a directionless instrumental called "Studebaker". Where they disappeared to was never properly explained, but I've long had a theory that it had something to do with the sudden removal of Garrett Klahn from the band. He was the bassist and backing vocalist on the "Freckle"/"Tuesday's Child" 7 inch, and although his replacement, Steve Mack, received the credit on "Drag Queen", the fine print indicated that Garrett had actually played bass and sang backup on "tracks 1,3,5-9". Which, yes, means that Steve Mack only played on two of the album's nine songs. What happened there? I don't think anyone not directly involved can know for sure, but one clue might lie in the song "Caption". Smack in the middle (literally--it's track 5 out of 9) of multiple songs about jilted and unrequited lovers, "Caption" is a sincere and unabashed love song. It's slow and pretty, the guitars are undistorted throughout, and more than any other song on "Drag Queen", it's allegiance is with British guitar pop rather than hardcore or any sort of post-hardcore sound. "Wrap me in your arms on the street, below the glowing lamppost," Meaghan sings. "There you rest your weary cheek upon my ear, and you're whispering those words so dear: 'I could never leave you, I could never bear the thought. Don't ever go.'" So OK, this is obviously a syrupy love song, the only one "Drag Queen" has to offer. How could this, of all songs, hold the key to what broke up the band?
The answer is in a lyric that isn't even printed on the lyric sheet. At the end of the song, after the second chorus, there's a moment where the drums drop out, and both Meaghan Ball and a male vocalist (which, we see from the fine print, was Garrett Klahn), sing the lyric "Your place is at the heart of my everything" four times. The drums slowly build back up over these four repetitions, then bring the part to an end, and seem like they should end the song. However, one guitarist continues to play an arpeggio, and over this, quietly and by herself, Meaghan sings another line twice: "I wish you could hold me in your arms again." Unlike the rest of the song, which seems to be a celebration of a current love, this line depicts said love as having gone away. And it sounds like Meaghan doesn't like that it has. My theory, and it will doubtless never be confirmed or denied, especially at this late date, is that the band was both created and held together by a romantic relationship between Meaghan and Garrett. That relationship ended unexpectedly, and while the band tried to stay together, at first with Garrett still in it and later without him, it just didn't work. The only evidence I can offer to back this theory up--and it's slim evidence--is the last line from the lone album by Garrett's post-Copper band, Texas Is The Reason. Texas Is The Reason were much more successful than Copper, and these days, when Copper is nearly forgotten, a lot of people who've heard that Texas Is The Reason album have no idea that the final lyric of their song "A Jack With One Eye" has any greater significance. In that song, Garrett seems to be addressing a past lover: "You're not telling me nothing that I haven't heard before. You'll have to try harder than that, you'll have to dig deeper than that." Later he says, "Raise it up, so I can see just what you're doing to me. Do you even know why?" It's at this point that he makes the copper reference. "Your place is still at the heart of my everything," he says, making it sound like he didn't want things to end any more than Meaghan might have. So the question becomes: who ended it? And what happened to end it? Between the final line of "Caption" and all of "A Jack With One Eye", it's nearly impossible to tell, considering that both parties sound like they were hurt, and didn't want things to end that way.
I guess we'll never know. But it's an interesting story.
Copper - Sissy
Copper - Drag Queen
Copper - Caption
Texas Is The Reason - A Jack With One Eye
[Note: original 7 inch version of "Freckle" added to yesterday's blog post.]