Matador at 21
Standing on the shoulders of the past is a dangerous position gazing through the haze of dead bodies, former lovers, and the highs and lows of the past can provided a remedy for today. 1989-1990 were years of planting seeds, at least for the soft underbelly of the fermenting underground scene. At night we huddled in bars, clutching long-necks as if they were talismans, eyeing bands on crumbling stages while looking for lovers through the haze of cigarette smoke. Back then we got paid to listen to records and laugh at the responsibilities of the rest of the world. Very few of us had children, had jobs that required button-down shirt or, god forbid had mortgage payments to make. The thirst inside of us was for music, booze, and the sense of belonging that those two ingredients can provide.
The grotesque hierarchy of major labels and commercial entities tried to foist the sickening, barbaric, and sexually destructive machismo of such drivel as Warrant, Motley Crue, and other purveyors of all things hair, spandex, and stupidity on us. The underground scene was more approachable, and although Dinosaur Jr. may have lacked the audio sheen of “Girls Girls Girls”, the guitar solo from “Freak Scene” ferociously laid waste to the whole ridiculous genre of 80s corporate rock, and Dinosaur Jr.’s song was more honest about relationships than anything Vince Neil and his skinny dumbfuck drummer could ever hope to aspire to. We discovered that those who made the most precious, moving art were among us, just a phone call or, better yet, a 7-inch away.
At Used Kids, we were connected to the loose but sophisticated network of labels, booking agents, fanzine writers, and fans across the country. There were only a few distributors getting the music into people’s hands. The labels were started in living rooms and some, by sheer force of personality, perseverance, and hard work, lifted themselves out of those living rooms and into real offices with fax machines, computers, and maybe even a Starburst commercial or two. It’s ironic that now, twenty years after the static indie/grunge rock revolution, many labels are again being run out of living rooms, coffee shops, or wherever one’s laptop may be. Because of the kind but acerbic enthusiasm of Ron House and Dan Dow, whose reputations preceded them, I got to know most every important player in nineties underground rock. A tiny touchstone in the largest college town in America, soon I was handling the ordering at Used Kids, and I started booking shows into the cozy confines of Staches and Bernie’s. My own enthusiasm was exhausting—records were more important than anything. more important than sex because a record can’t hurt you, more important than jobs because songs don’t have responsibilities, and more important than families because music can’t leave you.
Gerard Cosloy phoned Used Kids one day and asked Ron to order the first full-length record on his new label, Matador Records. My memory is clouded because I thought it was Teenage Fanclub’s A Catholic Education, but it must have been Superchunk’s self-titled debut. In any event, we ordered a handful and were blown away by both records, especially the life-affirming sound of Superchunk’s “My Noise” and “Slack Motherfucker,” the sentiments of which laid the groundwork for an entire generation soon to be labeled Gen-Xers. A Catholic Education was itself an epiphany, combining the raggedness of Sonic Youth with the fragility of Dinosaur Jr. (two bands that Gerard had worked closely with at Homestead Records). Teenage Fanclub’s record was beautiful in every staticky, disordered note, a watershed of sound coalescing into what may be described simply as Perfect Sound Forever.
We ordered direct from most labels; Scat in Cleveland, Dischord in Washington, DC, Ajax in Chicago, Siltbreeze in Philadelphia, Sub Pop in Seattle, and Revolver in San Francisco. All of them were run by people with the same devotion to musical escape that we shared. It wasn’t too long before I was working closely with the labels as bands played and sweated through the college towns and major cities across America. Bands and label employees knew that they could find ears and couches in Columbus, and it wasn’t long before Columbus had become a main stop for touring bands. I discovered that every town had someone like me who was all too willing to shell out meager guarantees to musicians who were escaping their own mundane jobs for two weeks to eat greasy eggs and falafel and snuggle up to a stranger’s dog. I got to know some of these folks myself, either closely or by the casual association of the scene. In Athens, Georgia, Henry Owings booked shows and was soon putting out the devastatingly funny Chunklet zine that lampooned our entire tiny universe. In Pittsburgh, a curly haired, overtly serious short man named Manny brought bands in by the dozens. In Cleveland, Kathy Simkoff eked out a living finding bands to fill her small club, the Grog Shop, with many of the same bands who would wake up at eleven A.M. on my floor and make the two-and-half-hour drive to Cleveland.
I had only two unpleasant interactions with bands over the years, both involving bands that I booked as favors for their labels. The first was H.P. Zinker, who managed to have the debut releases for both Matador and Thrill Jockey Records. I had gotten a last minute show for them at Bernie’s on a Monday night with Gaunt, who had just “signed” with Thrill Jockey. There were all of six people at the show—me, Gaunt, and one rabid, blonde-haired fan who stood in front of H.P. Zinker for their entire set. The drummer also played in the Amherst band Gobblehoof (for whom J. Mascis moonlighted on drums) and he was a bit irate that I didn’t have more than the fifty bucks I gave him out of my pocket. He threatened to take me outside and “kick my skinny little ass.” At that point in my life, I was sober—a quiet, peaceful record store guy whose only aspiration was to listen to the next Ass Ponys record. There were to be no fights that night, although I did not offer my couch or to introduce them to my lovable dogs.
The second unpleasant interaction was with Moonshake, an English band signed to the brilliant Too Pure label. They lacked the frenetic genius of label mates Th’ Faith Healers and Stereolab, and leader Dave Callahan and songstress Margaret Fielder didn’t have the charm and politeness of those bands. After receiving a call from the Matador offices asking for a last minute show for Moonshake as they came from Chicago to New York for the annual College Music Journal Marathon, I placed them on a bill with three noisy, garagey bands on Thrill Jockey: Zipgun and Gorilla were from Seattle (Gorilla had released a brilliant song called “Detox Man”) and, of course, Gaunt. Moonshake didn’t like the fact that they had to go on second nor did they approve of the garage drunkenness of the other bands. Several times during the night, Margaret complained to me about the order of bands and the sounds of the bands. At the end of the night, after splitting the modest door four ways, each band made roughly $150 (with the exception of Gaunt, who usually played for free on the shows I booked). Needless to say, Margaret was none too pleased with this and said, “Well, I think most people were here to see us as we are on Matador.” I was in no mood to get in a pissing match with a musician, so I simply walked away. Several days later we bumped into one another in the Matador offices, as we were all in New York City for the CMJ festival.
In the pastures of middle age, when the difficulties in life are simpler yet can be complicated by the spilling of apple juice, finding a moment to sink into the electric hum of guitars requires planning. Choices are made based on the effects that they have on one’s ability to navigate through to the next day and provide a modicum of the appearance of responsibility. In my office, the records climb the walls, the compact discs wrestle for space, and books long ago read ply for space on cheap warping particle board shelves. Downstairs, the stereo is surrounded by more compact discs and a few long lost but just discovered cassettes, with every vinyl record I have purchased over the past three years stacked underneath. Most are unopened, as I buy them out of habit, by rote as I navigate the various websites to purchase music. Again, as I did twenty years ago as the buyer for Used Kids, I either order directly from the labels (both Matador/Beggars and Merge are favorites, as their LPs contain download codes) or obtain new music from e-music (I subscribe to the connoisseur plan, 75 downloads a month) or get it on the cheap from Amazon. I usually run out of my downloads from E-music within a week and wrestle with whether I want purchase more downloads. Like a fat man eating pizza, I don’t always taste what I shove in my mouth—I consume and forget how to digest the music I hear. I find favorites for a moment (currently Bare Wires, Justin Townes Earle, and Love is All) and continue to be bowled over by old friends like Superchunk and Teenage Fanclub.
Over our lifetimes, we gather, hoard, and discard, playing a mathematical game of emotion versus materialism. I have spent the last nine years quitting—quitting drinking, quitting screwing around on my wife, trying to quit eating shitty food, quitting expecting myself to be someone who I may have been but can no longer be. I have seen the destruction of longing and attachment eat up the ones I love the most, leaving bare spaces of loss in my psyche that I try to fill up with a new life of young children and, of course, music.
Sometimes I play a mental game, revisiting myself as a younger man wading into a scene I was once very much a part of. Now I sit outside the lines, learning to not so gracefully be a bystander to the lives of others who are a bit younger and a bit more curious. I can see myself picking up a bottle at whatever show is playing at Columbus’s newest version of Staches (this year it is the Summit) and making the young women cackle and the men nod in agreement. I realize that with my graying hair sticking out like a thorny bush, a slight paunch not from alcohol but from exhaustion, and daily stubble that resembles tiny bits of prickly confetti scattered around my mouth as if they were a small parade for the losers, I would be a mess in a matter of hours. I would pine for my new self while wrestling for a time that came and went and was left asunder by alcoholism and mental illness that, fortunately, never held me hostage. Instead, I climb into bed early, even when I have the notion to huddle next to the stage, bobbing my head back and forth while a band plays loud and passionately.
I got an email from my cousin’s wife a few months ago asking if I was going to Las Vegas for the Matador Anniversary show—three nights of memories that would not be a nostalgia act but a celebration. I gazed at the lineup: Superchunk, Guided by Voices, Chavez, Pavement, and Yo La Tengo. These names brought me back to some of the happiest moments of my life, as they provided a soundtrack to a life that I lived and still live. They all meant something personal to me, either by casual relationships or because of the sheer beauty of the music they made. Superchunk’s music defined several breakups in my life. Their album Foolish provided me with solace as I maneuvered through several fleeting relationships in 1995, grappling with the fact that perhaps a fuckup means you’re not able to sustain any type of relationship that requires being able to navigate the end of a night without some assistance from a bottle. Likewise, Here’s to Shutting Up provided the balm to me when, at the ripe age of thirty-three, I was as broken and shattered as the plane imagery of that album, with lines such as “plane crash footage on tee-vee, I know that could be me” (“Phone Sex”), and “they’re building skeletons out of steel” (“The Animal Has Left It’s Shell”) and another song “Out on a Wing”, the record eerily mirrored the tragedy of the Twin Towers. Sometimes, crawling inside of a record is the safest thing a person can do, safer than the clutch of another body holding on for dear life as the emotions drip from the ending of and the beginnings of dreams. In the comfort of sound, we could be who we dreamed to be, with invisible walls that drew attention away from the bewildering aspects of our lives, we found consolation in sound. Even water is drawn to water, so it was the underground sounds found is home in those of us who choose to live outside the parameters set for us. The fact that most of us were white, (somewhat) college educated, and prone to make cynical and ironic statements made us prone to derision by some, surely not the same amount of derision we felt for much of mainstream culture.
As my wife and I visited Gainesville in the late spring of 2001, we stayed in hotel in the middle of the University of Florida campus. The atmosphere was thick with smoke erupting out of fires that had engulfed much of central Florida. As I gazed out into the swamp of the campus, the environment thick with green, creeping plants and the encroaching smoke snarling the hopes I had for a successful marriage, I had a feeling that the fires did not portend a hopeful year. While there offering my newlywed spouse the fragile words of encouragement for a lifelong and very adult dream of teaching fine arts to adults, I felt a touch of sickness for myself and for her, in her dreams I slowly realized that a part of mine was shifting, disintegrating around me. Snaggled and constricted like the smoke that was slowing covering the ground below. Appropriately one of the most painful songs on Here’s to Shutting Up that I repeatedly subjected myself to, is titled “Florida’s on Fire.”
After gazing at the line-up for the anniversary show, I emailed my wife, whose last concert was five years ago (Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips). I was startled by the fact that she said that she might consider attending. Sadly, but with a tiny amount of relief, I realized that the event would be held during my monthly weekend of graduate school classes. We could not attend. I would be in Cleveland, learning how to be more skilled in the act of providing clinical compassion. In the years since giving up the bottle, I have learned that I suffer from a social phobia. It is with a small sense of dread that I attend concerts. I set little rules for myself when attending shows—I go late, usually when the band I want to see is ready to go on and I leave when I grow tired. Last month I saw Titus Andronicus, staying for only about six songs. I thought that they were brilliant, but I had to get up the next morning and shuffle off to work after helping balance a jittery house filled with two over-anxious youngsters. I know that I can’t operate on as little sleep as I once did, even without a hangover. Seeing Pavement earlier this month was a pleasant experience, but I had no desire to wander up to the stage or try to talk to the band that once slept on my floor after I booked them several times in Columbus. I sat back and marveled at the easy pleasure they had in playing old songs and how well they all looked. Tonight the reformed Guided by Voices are playing in a show that may be one of their only Columbus shows that I did not have a hand, I haven’t decided if I am going to go yet (I did decide to go and had a wonderful time). Perhaps more than any other band, I have been identified with GBV, mostly due to the fact that a very good bootleg was recorded at my 26th birthday party when they were hitting their stride. Crying Your Knife Away was recorded shortly before Bee Thousand was released and after Alien Lanes was already finished (Alien Lanes was tentatively called Scalping the Guru at the time). We were all friends then, but over the course of time we have become un-friends. This is not due to any squabbling, but my own interests rise and fall as every diaper is changed.
In the newest New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones writes a somewhat dismissive article about Pavement, accusing the band in not-so-subtle terms of playing reserved and couching their sound in an attitude built around their supposed “normalcy” to exclude people who were unlike them. He thus dismisses the cultural times that the band was created in—that of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, the aforementioned prefab shit of eighties hair-metal, the radio bombast of Phil Collins, and the tepidness of inauthentic rebels like Billy Idol and Bon Jovi, who were about as dangerous as a two-liter bottle of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. Mr. Jones misses the point. We longed for normalcy to combat the force-fed tripe many of us suffered through while growing up in high schools across the land. There were sonic oases to be found on the far-left bands of FM radio stations and in the bins of local record stores. It was bands like Pavement, Guided by Voices, Mudhoney, and Superchunk that bound us together, providing the belief and determination that we didn’t have to buy the bill of goods that mainstream America was throwing against the wall. If anything, Pavement brought the warm, reality-based sounds of the Velvet Underground into the nineties, and they had enough self assurance not to have to wear sunglasses indoors or have tattoos of women whose breasts were as big as watermelons on their arms. There was no need to pretend to be something else—a Disney version of rock & roll—because we were self assured enough in our own lives to realize that we may not have known what we wanted, but we did know what we didn’t want. If you were in the middle of Mr. Jones, so-called clique, it didn’t feel that way, it felt like home.
After having spent a vast amount of time trying to tear our worlds down night by night, beer by beer, shot by shot, and note by note, I now spend my days trying to rebuild lives, sentence by sentence, listen by listen, and patience by patience. It is an ongoing struggle that is tempered by the gold soundz of my MP3 player.