A little while ago, I ran an impromptu Facebook poll: One like equaled one former favorite band of mine, and why they were no longer my favorite band. The response was amazing. Lots of: “Huh, I never noticed that before, but you’re totally right.” Just as much: “You don’t know what you’re talking about/you’re expecting too much from them/you’re an idiot.” Hearty debate in a couple of instances, and a couple of others inspired me to peek back into discographies I hadn’t explored in years.
I gave each artist a short explanation as to why they’d lost my attention. The explanations ranged from one word, e.g. “Lee Hazlewood-overexposure,” to a sentence or two, e.g. “Eels-Their singer threatened me with physical violence.” It was a lot of fun, and I got to talk a lot about my musical journey.
Here are a few of those artists, once my “favorite” band, looked at in a little more detail. In lieu of criticism, please send $25 via paypal to firstname.lastname@example.org.
They Might Be Giants
Brooklyn’s Ambassadors of Love. John and John. Two guys that looked like me, and the guitar player wore glasses. The last time I ever watched Saturday morning cartoons, They came blasting across my purview on an episode of Tiny Toons. Suddenly, music was something that could be made for ME to enjoy. This was 1993: I could not yet see the artistic merit of gangsta rap, and could not yet identify with the ennui of grunge. They Might Be Giants, though, sang about “funny” things like particle men, birdhouses and foreign cities. Their quirky lyrical sensibility and non-conventional instrumentation piqued my interest, showed me a brief glimpse through into the vast world beyond Waterford, MI. Brooklyn was a distant continent, but I knew, then, that it would one day be my home.
Detroit is a hard rockin’ town, and I rocked hard to those first four TMBG albums, and triply hard to John Henry, which was new when I was a sophomore. I don’t think a day passed where I didn’t listen to TMBG, from 93-98. Almost all of the first songs I learned on guitar were They songs. They were my beginning, They were my genesis. They would always be in my heart.
And then, things just… changed. They went into a long hiatus after Factory Showroom and didn’t release a new album until 2001. Mink Car, coincidentally released on 9/11, began a decade-plus of mediocre-at-best studio albums, as well as several albums of kids music, which interests me about as much as getting slapped with a raw steak or, say, a new Red Hot Chili Peppers album. I lost the plot, with They, for well over a decade, until news that Nanobots was a return to rare, weird form.
But it’s not like They changed, and I didn’t. I matriculated in 1997, lost my virginity. Got invited to my first parties, played my first gigs. Got heavily involved at my school’s radio station, and found all kinds of new music that fit my new worldview. Truth is, by the time Mink Car came out, I was too different a person to really glom onto it. They still mean something to me, I still check their records out. But that sense of URGENCY has left. I still respect my roots, and I still like them. It’s just not my only source of inspiration.
Neutral Milk Hotel
Okay, only Aeroplane Over the Sea. Okay, I was told to sit and JUST LISTEN to the record, after I’d owned it for almost a decade without ever actually hearing it. OKAY, I was mesmerized. Okay, it was on constant rotation in the tour van. Okay, I fell hopelessly in love with the wrong girl, and she had a tattoo of the flying phonograph, on Aeroplane’s cover. OKAY, the listening to that record still makes me think of her. Okay, Aeroplane impresses upon me a feeling of isolation and solitude, magnified by the subject matter, and magnified further by Jeff Mangum’s disappearance from the public eye. Okay, I got a little too excited when I got two tickets to the Mangum solo tour, in 2011. Okay, the wrong girl popped into my life, again, for a second, agreed to go to the show with me. And disappeared. Again. Okay, I was crushed. Okay, I tried to make the most of it, but was terribly let down by the experience of seeing Mangum do those songs, by himself, in a crowd of 5000 people. Okay, I don’t think these songs were meant to be listened to in large crowds. OKAY, I ask too much of my heroes. Okay, I’ve never felt compelled to listen to Aeroplane again. OKAY. Okay.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Completionist overload. Burned out. Gave up for good around 2013.
Electro-Shock Blues was the first album that I didn’t quite “get,” on first listen and, rather than throw it in the garbage, I listened to it until I “got” it, and was then hooked. In the wake of E’s whole family dying, he created this fractured and gorgeous album-length funeral ballad. For months, I told everybody about the second Eels record, how they were so much more than “Novocaine for the Soul.” Four years later, I was still obsessed enough with that record that I drove 200 miles by myself to the nearest place on the Eels’ Souljacker tour. Stood right in front of the stage, on the verge of tears, the entire show. Brazenly, I reached out and stole a set list off the stage, during the encore break. Even more brazenly, I waited out by the bus for an autograph, after the show. E went into a huge rockstar fit, when I presented the set list for him to sign. Shouted at me in front of a bunch of other fans, and told me that if the roadie wasn’t cool about writing a new set list, I’d get the shit kicked out of me. Eventually he signed the sheet of paper and told me to get the fuck out of his face. I’ve been told by friends of E’s that this is a bit he does as a cure for boredom on the road. But he never broke the bit that night. It’s been fourteen years, and I’ve never listened to another Eels record since.
I saw the Ramones on a whim, July ‘95, at the beginning of their Adios Amigos tour. I knew “Sedated,” and I didn’t get the joke when they were on The Simpsons. The pure electric onslaught of a handful of chords, a handful of words, and a punishing amount of volume overloaded my teenage circuits. You know how, sometimes, you make a friend, and years later, you can’t remember exactly how you met, and you can’t remember a time in your life when they weren’t there? It was like that, with me and the Ramones. Their puerile sense of humor suited sixteen year old BP perfectly. At the end of the grunge era, when everybody was stuck in The Downward Spiral, I was Glad To See You Go Down To The Basement. Luckily, Ramones came back the following spring, and I got to see them a second time. I knew all the words, ran around in the pit, screaming along. I may or may not have smoked pot for the first time in the crowd. As the last notes rang out and Joey shouted, “Adios, amigos!” I felt real closure, felt like I was saying goodbye to a loved one, on their deathbed.
When Lollapalooza ‘96 was announced, a few weeks later, imagine my surprise, then, when Ramones were announced as a special guest on the lineup. That THIS was the final Ramones tour. Thanks to headliners, Metallica, who didn’t want to saturate the market and hurt sales for their own headlining tour, later that year, there would be no Michigan date. Twenty summers ago, the final Ramones tour did not come within driving distance of Detroit, the band retired and the founding members started dying.
I felt cheated. I have learned to love the time I got to spend with the Ramones. I have never forgiven Metallica.
And the world didn’t end, and those Ramones records are still with us. I realized, in the first days after that tour commenced, that Ramones are eternal. They are stronger in death than they were, in life. I didn’t stop listening to Ramones, when I didn’t get to see that REAL final tour. But that momentary disappointment brought them down to earth, for me. The circumstances of this punker’s life, the geographical handicap that kept me from getting to Lolla that year, didn’t stop Ramones from influencing my musical awakening. It didn’t stop me, anymore than it stops younger punkers from discovering them, today. Today, punkers are still discovering Ramones, tuning into this mutant pop music and being serenaded out of the doldrums of teenage ennui. While they don’t loom so large over my life, today, I am forever indebted to Ramones, for carrying on just long enough to change my life, that night.