Wish I were cool…

Cool? Not now, not then, not ever. But, I can pretend.

I was nosing around A Sweet Unrest and read her post on Nick Drake. It’s a very personal and sobering reflection upon his Pink Moon LP (an album that I too personally adore), but it was her opening line that caught my eye and prompted me to begin typing. She says, “Like a few other Americans my age, I first heard Nick Drake thanks to a television commercial.” Immediately, my first thought was a snide “humph, not me.” And then, about one second later, I thought to myself, “Since when did you become such a musical snob? Are you just like every wanker you pretend to rail against?” And that made me sad, made me pause, and made me think about a few things.

After all, isn’t that the worst of the colour-by-numbers punk mentality, that theoretical and antagonistic search not for better music, per se, but to be the “first” and to have the untainted pedigree that’s been purged of all traces of normalcy and commonplace? That knee-jerk attitude used to make me sick, but now I’m sick of myself. After all, anything or any method that gets people to listen to and appreciate Nick Drake must have some value, be it advertising or not. So, for this most recent musical sin I’d like to publicly castigate myself for my snobbish, boorish ways.

After all, you don’t get any credit for liking things “first”, and if that’s one of the contingencies for you to continue liking a favourite band then you’re just a crap fan in a different disguise. Fair enough if the band you used to love makes it big AND you happen to no longer like their stuff, but if you still like their music but can’t stand that your own Mom now likes the band then you might be guilty of the sin of pride.

To atone for my own sins, I thought I’d share a few albums or songs that changed my life and made me feel like I was the only one in the world who knew about them.

I’ll continue with the Nick Drake theme (thanks to Alisa for the inspiration), and start with “Time Has Told Me”, the first track from his debut LP, Five Leaves Left. When I first heard this, I couldn’t help reaching for the lyrics, and when I saw them in print I was not disappointed. For the first time, I saw a song that read as beautifully on the page as it sounded to the ear. There may be a quite a few who would disagree, but for me personally it is far more rare. There are a great number of our most cherished songwriters who are poetic or who have poetic sensibilities, but for a work to stand alone as a poem is remarkable. There is a haunted, lyrical quality to this small & shy piece, and it may have been my over-affection for John Keats that pricked my ears to the pure lyricism of the song. In later years I would read A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman, and was struck by the same familiar lilt and tone that Nick Drake evokes here. For better or worse, “Time Has Told Me” brings to mind “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats, and Poem XIX of A Shropshire Lad, (commonly referred to as “To An Athlete Dying Young”) by A.E. Housman.

Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me

Time has told me
You’re a rare rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind.

And time has told me
Not to ask for more
Someday our ocean
Will find its shore.

So I`ll leave the ways that are making me be
What I really don’t want to be
Leave the ways that are making me love
What I really don’t want to love.

Time has told me
You came with the dawn
A soul with no footprint
A rose with no thorn.

Your tears they tell me
There’s really no way
Of ending your troubles
With things you can say.

And time will tell you
To stay by my side
To keep on trying
’til there’s no more to hide.

So leave the ways that are making you be
What you really don’t want to be
Leave the ways that are making you love
What you really don’t want to love.

Time has told me
You’re a rare rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind.

And time has told me
Not to ask for more
For some day our ocean
Will find its shore.

Few would argue that this is the most remarkable poem they have ever read, but for me it is remarkable in its ability to stand as a poem in and of itself, which is not something that I can say for many songs or songwriters. (In fact, I’ll just go ahead and disclose now that it is the only one I can personally think of).

R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant

I’m pretty sure I bought this record when I was 15, and the only reason I bought it was because of their version of “Superman”. At the time I thought it was their own song, but a true hipster would know that it’s actually by The Clique. So there I was, chasing down a throwaway college radio single (albeit a very good one), and here I am many years later listening to the album for two weeks straight and guarding it as if my life depended on it. This album was only a handful that I took with me when I left the US for Australia, and when I decided to choose only one R.E.M. album, I chose Lifes Rich Pageant. Due to this recent and furious surge of appreciation, I can’t even recall how much I valued this album before, so all I can do is reflect upon what it means right now.

The first 4 tracks constitute quite possibly my favourite 14 minutes of recorded music. “Begin The Begin” is a smashing opener that serves as a reminder, to all those who know R.E.M. only for their pop hits, that once upon a time they were a proper college rock band, with all the distortion and poetic fury that implies. “These Days” is equally urgent and impressive, but it’s all a set-up to “Fall On Me”, one of the finest songs in the R.E.M. canon, and one that still makes me shake my head and marvel. “Cuyahoga” might just be my pick for the sleeper standout, which marries elusive, elliptical lyrics with simple music that speaks volumes.

I recently saw the video for “Fall On Me”, and it might be the smartest piece of post-modern literature I’ve seen in a very long time. There is absolutely no point in me dissecting the whole thing, so just follow the link and see for yourself. You might see what I mean, or you might think that I’ve merely got a musical crush that is skewing my judgment. For whatever it is worth, the words at the beginning of the video “Bury–Magnets–Swallow–The–Rapture–Lets–Gather–Feathers”, strike me as the mark of a genius. I can’t say why, but they give me a feeling this is just plain different, and that I should be paying attention.

Those first 4 songs will see me from my house all the way to high school where I teach on Tuesday mornings, and it’s been in the CD player for a few weeks now. I don’t know why the resurgence, but it must have some meaning. Other standout tracks that I keep on repeat are “I Believe”, “Swan Swan H”, and, even after all these years, “Superman”. I have no excuse for it, so I won’t even try.

Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand

What can I say about this record? It’s not like anything I’ve ever heard, and when I listen to it those brief moments are probably the coolest I will ever be. (Keep in mind that it manages to race through 20 tracks in 36 1/2 minutes, so there’s not a whole lot of coolness leverage happening). Fragmented, chaotic, poetic, and laced with beautiful pop melodies, this is what college radio sounded like WAY before I ever got there. Sadly, this is one of the records that I left behind, and I was without it until very recently when I got hammered all by my lonesome and downloaded it from iTunes. For that I am grateful, but it’s still not the same as having it in my hands and shoving the disc eagerly into the car stereo. “Hardcore UFO’s” is a wonderful opener, and it just rolls and rolls from there.

Sure, the songs are really, really short, but that’s part of their charm for me. Each song sounds like it was recorded completely differently from the rest (different studio/garage/bathroom), plus I think a few tracks have some technical difficulties that they leave as is. I don’t care, it’s perfect, and I can only dream of ever capturing something that oozes such….otherness. Again, this work has the mark of a genius, and once again I can’t say why.

I should also mention that this was the first band I ever saw on my own. I went to some crappy massive rock shows with other people before, but in my senior year in high school I skipped playing in the marching band, drove to the Cotton Club in downtown Atlanta, and was packed amongst strangers for a night that most certainly changed my life. Lead singer Robert Pollard was blind drunk, but perfect, and I remember staring at the guitarist all night, begging him to lock eyes with me and signal that yes, he saw me, and yes, I was cool.

He did lock eyes, but there was no signal, and most likely was thinking to himself, “Who’s the dipshit and why is he looking at me like that? He’s giving me the creeps.”

Even though I knew that I was being a complete and utter loser, I couldn’t stop pleading with my eyes. Let’s face it, I’m probably still doing it.

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One Response to “Wish I were cool…”

  1. Greer Says:

    Well, I’m probably never going to be awake enough to respond to this one adequately but I did want very much to tell you that I almost never write about my personal life in such a specific way on my blog and it was you, your earlier post about what happened to you and the way you wrote about it with such dignity and honesty and how you felt reading that passage from Rushdie that gave me the courage to do it. And for a lot of reasons I am glad I did.

    That said, I was a bit nervous about admitting to other music fans that I first heard Nick Drake that way :). But that’s how it happened. I feel like some of Roddy Frame could stand alone on the page but I would never want it to when I could have his voice and guitar playing too. I don’t know that I ever would have thought of La Belle Dame Sans Merci in the context of Time Has Told Me on my own but I do see it. I recently got a copy of A Stropshire Lad and now I look forward to reading it even more.

    Anyways. I can’t wait to see what 2011 has in store for you. I wish you all the best, always.

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