Yeowz! Clank! Bang and Twang Baby! That’s how I always thought my first Rock n’ Roll essay would start. But it doesn’t, baby, no it doesn’t. So, quiet on down and hunker in close ‘cause this story doesn’t start with on-stage explosions of light and your spine being caressed by that electric devil. You know the one – he’s conjured by that infernal instrument of hell itself, the gee-tar. No, baby, my story of rock n’ roll starts with gray clouds and murky puddles lying on the sidewalks, all content like, knowing they ain’t gonna dry up that day.
So hunker down and listen. . .
Jen and I had been hanging out in downtown Portland on one of the first non-rainy days in weeks. We had just moved there that fall and we were still getting to know the town. Walking through Pioneer Courthouse Square, we paused to watch the spectacle of a hundred tuba players belting out Christmas songs, apparently an annual tradition. After watching for a minute or two, I decided that the players with shiny brass tubas were much cooler than those blowing on the ends of the plastic-looking white ones.
With the universe thus in place, we continued our stroll. We were walking across the square towards the river when two tall guys walking towards us smiled. A not-so-instant recognition program fired off in my brain. It was Colin and Mark, two guys with whom I went to high school and hadn’t really seen since graduation five years before.
“Hey, it’s Will,” Mark said, the quick grin that I remembered crossing his face.
They stopped and I introduced Jen. We paused on the sidewalk and made the sort of awkward small talk that happens when you run into a person that you genuinely like, but haven’t seen in a long time.
Even though Helena, our home town, is the fifth biggest city in the state of Montana, it is psychologically and geographically a small place. This probably appealed to our parents but felt confining at one time or another to everyone who grew up there. Although I was never great friends with Colin or Mark, we had friends in common and our social passports would let us hang out in the same cliques and crowds occasionally. Helena wasn’t big enough to not know even your casual acquaintances pretty well.
Both of them looked the same. Mark is a tall blond guy with a boyish face that radiates warmth. Colin, who has dark hair and an endless supply of cool eyeglasses, was friendly yet quiet, introspective in a way that can make him seem aloof. I knew him better than Mark, we had ended up being in a lot of the same classes our senior year and we would talk occasionally about books and music. Mark was living in Missoula and was visiting Colin, who had also moved to Portland.
“What are you up to here?” I asked Colin.
“Oh, well, I’m playing some music and I make pizzas. I have a show coming up soon. You guys should come see it,” he said. “It’s at the Satyricon.” I said I’d like that and Jen and I headed towards the river and they headed towards the Square.
On a whim this week, I picked up a copy of Colin’s book, Let It Be. Since I ran into him and Mark in Portland six year ago, Colin went from playing solo shows to forming The Decemberists, a band that plays what was called college rock when we were growing up. The Decemberists are successful enough that they have a good following and and tour in places that were only seen in dreams and on television when we were kids in Helena.
Let It Be is part of Continuum Publishing's 33 1/3 book series written by musicians about albums that inspired them. It’s the sort of stuff that's written for fans and die hard music addicts like the characters from High Fidelity. Colin’s book is, theoretically, about the Replacements album of the same name. In reality, though, it is half autobiography and half rock and roll tour of his childhood in Helena. In it Colin describes his experimentation with alternative, college, punk, and modern music while growing up in a city where most people thought the Eagle’s Desperado was as good as it got.
Reading the book was half trip down memory lane and half introduction to a bizarro musical universe that took place in a city just like my own. The book opens with a story of a young Colin and Mark walking down to the mall to buy the Replacements tape. I knew the store well where they bought it, Pegasus Music, but I doubt that I ever looked at the same racks.
There is something both startling and fun about reading a book where I know 95% of the people in it (most names haven’t been changed) and yet, when Colin talks about music, my memory barely recognizes anything. When he was buying that Replacements tape at Pegasus Music, I was probably there the next week getting an AC/DC album. When he was listening to dubbed tapes of the Sex Pistols, I was hitting “record” on the old duel deck Sony boom box to make an illicit copy of my friend’s NWA tape. I thought that the musical world Colin writes about discovering in Let It Be didn’t exist in my Helena and it’s surprising to read that it did.
It’s not that I didn’t have any musical taste growing up. Well, not entirely. Helena really was a black hole when it came to new or alternative music – somehow the physical laws governing pop culture would cause it to bend and shoot around Helena leaving us empty and dark. Missoula to the west might have good concerts and Bozeman to the east had a college radio station, but we were trapped in a dark void. Sure, we had two pop radio stations, which was a lot for Montana, but even those didn’t seem to be on the mailing list for current, edgy stuff or music written in the last twelve months. If you didn’t have an out of state lifeline – such as a friend or a relative like the uncle that Colin describes – then you better have friends with taste. I didn’t.
Things slowly got better – the cable company finally picked up MTV and my brother went off to college in California. He would bring his new cd’s and mixed tapes home in the summer. One night, when I was in high school, I was cruising drag in my white station wagon with a group of friends when I pushed my new tape into the player. They Might Be Giants’ Flood came crackling loudly out of the stock Toyota speakers.
“Jesus Christ, what the hell is that?” One friend demand.
“Turn it off before someone hears it,” another guy chimed in from the back seat.
It was summer and our windows were rolled down. We were parked at a red light and hoping that a car full of girls might pull up in the lane next to us. Just then, a car came driving up and everyone in the back seat ducked their heads down.
I sighed and popped it out.
In the book, Colin describes going to see the Nylons when they came to town. I'm sad to say that I missed this spandex filled acapella show. The first real concert I went to – one where I liked the music and my parents hadn’t dragged me there – was at the Myrna Loy for Colin’s early band, Happy Cactus. I had a crush on a girl that was in the same theater crowd as Colin. Before the show, I practiced smiling at her in the mirror and tried to think of witty things to say. When I got to the concert, though, she only had eyes for Colin. She would stare at him in a way that I didn’t really understand but that I didn’t like either. I, of course, wanted to be stared at that same way. Every guy who has ever been to a concert feels this way but when it’s a friend of yours up on that stage, and it’s his first concert, you can almost feel the hot fingers of possibility brush against you as it passes by.
Colin sang about the escapist dream of being a mechanic in Seattle and about the evil that comes when you don’t enjoy life. “Mussolini never ate ice cream,” he sang to the dancing crowd below him. Happy Cactus filled and rocked the small auditorium and changed the way I experienced music. Instead of being perfect yet synthetic out of my little stereo speakers, it was raw and organic and you could watch the musicians work at it. They generated energy and fed off the crowds’ enthusiasm and I thought I could actually see the notes come together and form the songs. It was, simply, my first live local concert and it was great.
In the introduction to an REM cover that they played about half way through the show, Colin jokingly remarked that Michael Stipe had written the song before he sold out. I shook my head, somewhat annoyed. I had just started getting into REM, and here Colin was, already walking away from them. Of course, it was always like that with Colin. By the time I discovered a band, he was already on to something else. And after reading Let It Be, I understand why.