My father was a man of duwop and soul, but my mother was a sunkist Californian prone to pop and folk music of the 1960s and the 1970s. From her I inherited my love of Elton John: a love that compelled me to steal all her old albums, on each of which her maiden name is signed in adolescently perky penmanship. This is a theft she’s never let me live down, but I persist in keeping my stolen goods because the man has meant that much to me throughout the years. In middle school, high school, college, and beyond, I’ve always been able to pull an album from its dusty jacket and find exactly what I need. I’ve even had the good fortune to see him live on the Peachtree Road Tour, and let me tell you…the man has more energy than a pack of 22-year-old frat boys let loose at a brew pub. Proof that life can get better with age; hallelujah.
Every time I need a good cry, I put on Sarah McLachlan’s 1997 album Surfacing. This album makes me cry for two reasons: 1) it was the last gift I received from a beloved Grandfather and 2) the track “Full of Grace” was used on the WB show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While the latter may seem absurd, I urge you to remember the effect of popular culture on malleable teen girls (and boys, for that matter). Also I’m not alone in this: YouTube is aplenty with “heartbreaking” video montages that play out to that particular track. While I don’t tear up over the plot of Buffy, I do wax nostalgic for a time spent in a rambling ranch home under the umbrella of an upper middle-class childhood–sheltered and untroubled.
I spent countless hours playing each and every track from Surfacing on the piano, and pretending to be much more worldly, pulling the “epic suffering” of my “tortured” teen existence through my fingertips onto the ivories. This, however, means nothing if the album cannot grow with me in order to remain relevant; Surfacing absolutely has. My favorite tracks then are not my favorite now, and I find new meaning in those I routinely skipped before. For this reason this Throwback Thursday’s topic with always be present as well as past–in constant motion with its listener.
My first real piece of music writing came in middle school when I was a yearbook staffer assigned to write two pieces on popular culture representative of that year, 1997. I chose to review two movie soundtracks: Titanic and Good Will Hunting–Titanic because I was a ‘tween obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio, and Good Will Hunting because Elliott Smith was the soundtrack to my “tortured” middle class suburban existence. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had found the thing that would dominate my adult life: explaining music with words.
The soundtrack to Good Will Hunting propelled Elliott Smith into notoriety following his performance of “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards. Ever the introvert, the attention was daunting. In a recent Jeff Baker interview with William Todd Shultz, author of Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, Schultz describes the discomfort Elliott Smith felt after meeting Celine Dion backstage at the Oscars, and observed that “[Smith] didn’t have the greatest self-image. It was almost problematic to be famous because it didn’t fit with how he experienced himself as a person.” For a man beloved by a hardcore fan base, he generally wanted to be alone. Perhaps this explains his prolific musical output, first with Heatmiser and then on is own. It also explains the general tone of his songs, which are quietly introspective, Beatles-informed and confessional. I think this is the great conflict for many artists: how to sing to soothe your aches but maintain your privacy in a public forum.
Elliott Smith’s biographical record is sad, a cautionary tale of drug addiction born of low self esteem that ended the life of an immensely talented artist. Similar tales have been told too many times before. To listen to his albums chronologically from Roman Candle (1994), to Elliot Smith (1995), Either/Or (1997) and XO (1998) through Figure 8 (2000) is to watch an artist become more sure of his voice, ability and message. At the time of his death, he had acquired a coterie of vintage equipment and was actively recording new material for an album provisionally titled From A Basement On The Hill. Depending on whose story you believe, he was either turning things around when he died–clean and sober, in a stable relationship and starting a foundation for abused children–or devolving into another period of paranoid depression. Competing versions of the year prior to his death have produced different opinions on the act: either he executed “the best suicide I ever heard of,” as believed by Courtney Love, or he was murdered with a kitchen knife through the heart. While I want to believe the latter, the former is equally as likely.
I remember where I was when I heard of Smith’s death like my mother remembers where she was when Kennedy was assassinated. I’m very protective of Elliott Smith and his music in a big sister kind of way. This is why my hackles were raised when Madonna recently covered “Between the Bars” in a politicized performance that promoted the short film secretprojectrevolution. What I’ll say on this is…I think we’ve all seen the manipulating effect of politics this week. My protective instincts aroused, I realized–to my astonishment–that this month marks the 10th anniversary of Smith’s death, and learned a tribute will be staged in New York on October 21st. The lineup boasts indie powerhouse Cat Power at the head, with Yoni Wolf of WHY?, the Low Anthem, Adam Schatz from Landlady and Man Man, and others who will play their own music in addition to Smith covers. Tickets are steep at $50, but a portion of the proceeds will go to the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund, which partially supports youth based nonprofits Free Arts for Abused Children and Outside In–a Portland group that helps homeless youth (to which you can also contribute through IndieGogo).
Elliott Smith, gone for a decade, has now entered the realm of the footnote, but one that is referenced as a resource, not relegated to the dustbin of history (to borrow a phrase from Greil Marcus); he is an active citation and not a forgotten muse. This is encouraging to me, a little validating even, because no one wants to see their inspirations fade even if they die. Momentary resurrections through the posthumously released From A Basement On The Hill and then the two-disc New Moon (2007) have kept him near and dear, a voice speaking from the grave, guiding the teenager that found him through college. I am, as ever, a devotee of he.
Featured below is a short called Lucky Three made by Jem Cohen (recently profiled on this blog in the post “Museum Hours”) on 17-20 October 1996 in Portland, Oregon and released in 1997. It falls out of sync at one point, but still offers insight into Elliott Smith’s world as well as his music, and reminds me that music is made by men and women who are mortal, as flawed and as fine as we the unmusical.
Fiona Apple has had her ups and downs, publicly. There is her well documented Best New Artist acceptance speech at the 1997 MTV video music awards where she told us all that the “world is bullshit,” and, more recently, she stormed off stage during a performance at a Louis Vuitton event because the crowd was inconsiderately chatty. This is unfortunate since it dilutes the impact of her music, which is damn good. Coming of age at the height of Lilith Fair meant I have a profound connection to most female musicians of that era, but Fiona always spoke stronger to me. While I can’t imagine my mother was pleased to hear her 7th-grade daughter singing “Criminal” in the shower–“I’ve been a bad, bad girl / I’ve been careless with a delicate man / And it’s a sad, sad world / When a girl would break a boy just because she can”–her music, and my butchering of said music, was an integral facet of my development as a female. The ability to play act the scenes she sang about fattened my lexicon for real-life scenarios foreign to a sheltered kid. Plus, she made playing the piano look way cooler than it is, and I appreciated that as a fellow pianist.
My love for this woman is as wide as it is strong. Tidal, When The Pawn…, and Extraordinary Machine all save space on my shelf, and all three albums have, at one time or another, been invaluable companions on monotonous highways driving south. In fact, she’s been with me for so long, been through so much with me that I feel as if we’re old friends. Not in a Single White Female way, but in the spirit of mutual understanding–much like one could have with a bartender or barista at a frequent haunt. You don’t know them, they don’t really know you but you understand one another due to a shared interest and there is no judgement, it is a safe space. No, Fiona Apple does not know me but I probably know a thing or two about her because her music is nothing if not personal; this is the curse of being an artist.
Her music bonds the fragility of heartbreak to the venom of a breakup and the vacuum of the afterbirth, so to speak: that state of purgatory where love hasn’t fully seceded to hate or ambivalence, and you’re merely empty. It’s complex yet simple, and utterly relatable for a teenage girl whose every emotion is extreme (aided and abetted by watching too much My So Called Life). Listening to her old albums now is like a trip down memory lane where each song represents a different freeze frame in my life. I see the home in which I grew up, me sprawled on the floor of my bedroom, in winter, reading skateboard magazines with the comfort of my parents on the other side of the door yet shut out. I remember driving in my first car, sun roof open and hair whipping out the windows as I rushed through the warm Southern California night from one party to another and then home. So, what I guess I’m trying to impart on this Throwback Thursday is that Fiona Apple is home to me. The faces have been swallowed by the ground and the places have changed ownership, but I’m home in the house of memory as long as Fiona is by my side. And in these uncertain times, comfort may just be the quintessential throwback.
Our musical education starts young, and is largely influenced by our parents in its infancy. I’ve oft hypothesized that you either grow up in a Beatles household, or an Elvis abode–that the two seem to be mutually exclusive. My father was a HUGE fan of the King. To my teenage horror, he would roam the house doing impressions: singing with his lip curled and pulling Presley tunes from his diaphragm. I even inherited a sweat-stained scarf he allegedly (according to lore from his own mouth) fought a woman for after Presley had tossed it into the audience at a show. To reassure you, the provenance of the item is legitimate, but the process of acquisition is suspect; my father could tell a tale.
Elvis Presley remains an integral thread in the fabric of our American heritage, he cannot be ignored, but he is also a controversial icon. Largely credited with the creation of Rock and Roll, he is also criticized as a thief for stealing music played more authentically by its originators, black musicians, and making money from their sweat with his white face and bedroom eyes. He was also a drugged-out psychotic who commodified women, loved guns to an uncomfortable degree, and was drunk on the power of his own mystique. Greil Marcus (my idol) discusses Elvis’ legacy as it relates to the American landscape far better that I in Mystery Train, which I suggest you read if you want to follow this thought further.
As with most criticisms, however, there is always a counter-argument. Elvis grew up dirt poor on the wrong side of the tracks, literally, so it stands to reason that he would absorb the rhythm and blues prevalent in the black community with which he interacted, bonded as they were in their poverty. He was also incredibly generous and while his taste was ostentatious and his entourage absurd, it’s easy to interpolate from these facts the underlying insecurities that drove the King of Rock and Roll–he would always be the Mississippi mama’s boy with dirt under his fingernails from scratching his way up into the world. To displace this, he lived lavishly and showered all he knew, even mere acquaintances, with finery as if to remind himself that he had made it, but also for the joy of giving and having. Once you taste the P in Poor, you never again want that flavor on your tongue and are compelled to spare others from the same.
My father was a lot like Elvis Presley. The plot lines of his early years were the same but different, the generosity almost identical if not financed on a lower level. I have a feeling he understood this even if he didn’t consciously dissect it’s meaning. The last years of his life were difficult and did not befit his stature, just as the way the world lost the King did not jive with all that he had given. No man who savored company as sweetly and cared for his loved ones so thoroughly as these two should have died alone, and in this respect I will always mourn the passing of them both with a pang of regret. When Elvis died, the world sobbed together and sort of lost their minds. When my father died, I grew up fast and soundtracked his last moments aboveground with an Elvis song. After all, my father had left the building.
This Throwback Thursday happened because I stumbled upon an uncut version of Elvis Presley’s glorious 1968 NBC Comeback Special. 1968 was a heavy year of world-wide social upheaval, and in its midst comes a svelte, leather-clad Elvis, looking better than he ever did before and ever would again, singing stories in an intimate setting. This is how I prefer to remember Elvis, and not as the bejeweled Las Vegas spectacle he became. After rolling through the Presley catalog like a stroll down memory lane, the special ended with the debut of “If I Can Dream”–a call for hope in a time seemingly gone made, and now, through the fog of nostalgia, a thought to guide a daughter growing older in a vacuum.
Conceded: Fleet Foxes are not technically a “throwback,” per se. However, this is a blog about memory, and whilst sitting at my computer and stumbling through the internet abyss I came across a recording of the first Fleet Foxes show I ever attended courtesy of Wolfgang’s Vault. Talk about nostalgia in real time, this vault gives me the band banter and crowd chatter in addition to their set.
In 2008, the hither-to unknown Fleet Foxes opened for Blitzen Trapper at Bottom of the Hill during a local indie music festival called Noise Pop. I say “hither-to unknown” because this was their first out-of-town show; they hailed from Washington state. If you live in San Francisco and haven’t attended a Noise Pop festival, you should: the lineup always features a few stunners and the shows are staged in awesomely intimate venues scattered around the City. I was coaxed to the show by a friend who loves Blitzen Trapper, and dragged my heterosexual Lifemate with me. At the time I was painfully (painfully) single, and just young enough to foster the delusion that lead singers in bands were making eye contact with me.
We arrived at the venue early to survey and be surveyed, so we were front center when Fleet Foxes took the stage. Perhaps it was the second beer on an empty stomach, but this concert became a religious experience. For those unfamiliar with the venue, the stage at Bottom of the Hill is minuscule but has height to accommodate the storage of gear underneath it. These dimensions create an odd dynamic where the band feels accessible because they’re crammed onto a tiny stage, yet remote since they sort of overlord above you in an illusory command. Being front and center, we were gazing up into the lights when the fellas took the stage and, in that atmosphere, the flannel-wearing, long-haired Robin Pecknold looked like a modern-day Messiah. Please remember, I was somewhat intoxicated. Then the man opened his mouth and out came that folk hymnal mightiness that has driven this band into the limelight. Glory, glory, everyone.
After our communion with musical religiosity, the Lifemate and I moseyed over to the merchandise table which was manned by Fleet Fox Skylar Skjelset. Being awkward college co-eds, we fumbled to make conversation and what transpired is the reason why my memory of this concert (aside from the music) remains so fond. As we pawed at CD’s and records we had no intention of purchasing, Lifemate said to Skjelset, “Has anyone ever told you you look like Macaulay Culkin?”
Skjelset’s expression went from welcoming to deadpan and my inner monologue screamed “Uh, oh. Abort. ABORT.” He simply said no and then there was silence. So I jumped in with an uncomfortable giggle and the caveat that, sometimes, people just like to make celebrity associations. For instance, people often tell me I look like Kirsten Dunst. To which he replied, “At least Kirsten Dunst doesn’t look retarded.”
Having sufficiently slammed the door shut on that interaction, we moved on–specifically a few feet to the right in order to stay in close proximity to the band (cut us some slack, we were young). I went to grab another drink, and I returned to find Lifemate chatting up Josh Tillman. Sweet lord, she was on a roll. The point at which I entered the conversation, I heard him say “Oh yeah? What instrument do you play?” It should be noted that Lifemate does not, nor has she ever, played any instrument. Ever. Meaning she somehow either intimated mistakenly or blatantly lied to the fact that she was also a musician in order to find common ground. Excellent strategy; I think it unnecessary to elaborate on how that turned out.
To reiterate, we were incredibly young and intoxicated, and who hasn’t done some stupid stuff when those are the elements in play. For the record, I now KNOW through the wisdom of age that lead singers are not making eye contact with me except to acknowledge that I’m the girl that cold-emailed him/her about reviewing his/her show. Although it’s painful to recall growing pains, it’s also a delight to remember a time when possibilities were rife when you set foot into a venue–when every glance and every innuendo were titillating, and the music was all you had. I do take issue with the Wolfgang’s Vault for-profit model in which they market our memories to us, betting on the fact that we’ll subscribe to the soundtrack of our youth.
But…I am a subscriber. I am a subscriber because listening to the exact transcript of a show that partially inspired me to pursue music journalism is an out-of-body experience and is priceless. And that is the definition of a throwback.
In honor of the news that they will release their first album since 1996 this September, Throwback Thursday is devoted to Mazzy Star. I hopped onto the Mazzy Star train in college when I became obsessed with their 1993 album So Tonight That I Might See. To be clear, I was not in college in 1993 (I was in third grade), but the 90s will forever by my good times decade. That CD, yes physical CD appropriately playing through my 1990s boom box, was spinning constantly, and “Fade Into You” was often on repeat to what I can only imagine to be my neighbors’ chagrin. Much angsty late-teen, early-twenties poetry was written by the light of that album. That song was the band’s chart-topper, and has been used in a surprisingly diverse array of terrible films and generic television shows: everything from Starship Troopers to Burlesque “starring” Christina Aguilera and Cher, CSI: Miami (in four different episodes) to Desperate Housewives. Despite these unfortunate appropriations, the song remains a mainstay–a strong as its debut, carrying the weight of coffee shop culture from the 90s into the new millennium. Here’s hoping nostalgia doesn’t preclude me from hopping on the 2013 Mazzy Star train as it comes through the station.