Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Don't Give Up On Us

I REMEMBER having a conversation with a friend one night in a noisy, crowded club, the sort of place I can’t imagine stomaching now, though back then it was something akin to a natural habitat. I knew this friend and I shared musical tastes – in fact it was a time in my life where that was pretty much a prerequisite to friendship. Now it seems to have been replaced by a need to find people with young children, like my wife and I do. That’s the fucked up way that your life determines your relationships. Anyway, this friend and I somehow started talking about the Replacements, I think because I’d been telling him about a course on the history of popular music I was taking at university, an elective outside my regular course of study in history (though for me the two were, and remain, very much connected of course, popular music sitting squarely in the pocket of my personal theory of cultural history, which I’d be happy to elaborate upon over a beer, if you’re interested). I had a paper to write, and I think I was telling him that I was thinking about make the ‘Mats the focus of that paper. I can’t fully replicate the conversation – some of it is lost to memory, other parts of it I never heard in the first place, buried as they were beneath rivers of bass and wailing treble (remember the setting) – but I do know with absolute certainty that we discovered a deep common love of Westerberg and Co., and I know that my friend said this: “The Replacements helped me survive high school.”

I GUESS I EXPECTED, if indeed I ever really thought about it, that songs like “I’m in Trouble” and “Bastards of Young” and “Here Comes a Regular” and “Can’t Hardly Wait” and would mean less to me by the time I hit my early-mid-thirties. I anticipated outgrowing the mix of crushing doubt, intense desire and unsubtle antipathy which supply the lifeblood of the Replacements’ music by the time I was married, had a child and a mortgage in a place geographically (if not spiritually) removed from the sodium-lit streets of my upbringing. So why do I need those songs now more than ever? Is it a simple, and paralyzingly depressing case of an early-midlife crisis?

Look, I’m ripe for depression these days. There’s no sense denying that. We moved to a new town last year and the truth is I haven’t taken to it so well just yet. It was a big change, and we were primed for it, sincerely hopeful. I also kind of felt like I had pretty well scotched things in Ottawa, why not try someplace new? And Peterborough is a good place, a nice town. But I haven’t really settled in yet, haven’t met anybody, haven’t joined anything. I stay at home with our daughter, take her to the library, the YMCA, talk to other parents, almost exclusively mothers. We live in an enlightened age, I know, and Peterborough’s a thoroughly liberal town, but a stay-at-home father’s still an anomaly. There are emotional barriers to forging friendships with those mothers. To boot, the move has exposed to great relief those guarded aspects of my personality; I don’t make friends easily (it doesn’t help that I never know what to say). So here I am, spending most of my days speaking only to my wife and our toddler. Night falls and I consider heading downstairs to my basement office to do some writing, but damn it, I’m tired, so a beer and a ballgame on TV is just about my speed. Then wham, it’s 11:00, I’m braindead exhausted, and I hate myself for wasting another evening.

Those are my days.

I’m isolated, treading water. And yeah, that’s got me down. So anything with the rosy tinge of the past, the faint whiff of a time when I felt more hope, is bound to appeal to me right now, and I get that. But with the Replacements, it feels like it’s more than that. It has something to do with the feeling that you’re running out of time.

MY WIFE is good to me. She basically understands what I’m feeling these days. She knows that while she’s landed in a new job and worked her way into a social circle, for me there isn’t the same joy concerning our new situation as there is for her. So when I say, “I need to head out to a movie tonight,” she’s fine with that. And when I said, “I think I need to get away for a weekend, by myself,” she was fine with that, too. She didn’t have to say, “Watch your budget,” because I understood that. It wasn’t as though I thought it would be prudent to fly to New York City for the weekend. But a short, economical road trip around Lake Ontario? Yeah, she was alright with that.

So Google Maps and I devised an itinerary: I would hit Buffalo, rattle around, have a bite and then take in a ballgame on Friday, all before the big prize, Rochester.

When I was a kid all our American network TV came from Rochester. I was raised on Rochester TV, so it’s maintained an undeserved air of nostalgia and mystery. I knew neighbourhoods, street names, business and personalities. I had this sense that, even without ever having gone there, I could find my way around the city; might actually feel a little bit at home there. Drive the streets, see the sights, go to a ballgame, and then cap it all with a visit to the great House of Guitars.

If you’re not lucky enough to have been in broadcast range of a station showing commercials for the HOG, then I pity you. They were fantastic. The proprietors, brothers Armand and Bruce Schaubroeck (who opened the store in ’64), and one or two employees (I guess) would clown it up in front of a camera, repeat the motto “The Store that Ate My Brain,” and hock instruments, records and tapes. Sometimes one of them wore a costume. In one version, somebody in a bunny costume spent the whole commercial saying “Hop, hop. Hop, hop.” It doesn’t sound like much, maybe, but they made an enormous impression on me as a kid, and they made the House of Guitars seem as though it must be pretty much the coolest place on the planet. If you absolutely need to see them I assume they’re on Youtube; otherwise it’s enough to take my word for it.

So I loaded up a box full of CDs, packed some clothes and left on a Friday morning. A beautiful day, the music loud. Had a good time in Buffalo, then drove to Rochester Saturday morning, visited the photography museum, then drove north through town to Irondequoit where the House of Guitars, in an old house-cum-storefront, like somebody’s basement shrine to rock ‘n roll, sat among the dry cleaners and butcher shops and tailors and video rental places.

I TOOK that picture, the one people put on Facebook, of themselves with the co-subject, in this case the store, visible over their shoulder. I held the camera at arm’s length, peered at the bulbous lens and fired. Then I did it again, to be sure.

Up the steps and into the store, greeted by walls of guitars and amps. I don’t know why I expected anything different. Glass cases with guitars leaning upright like statuary. I don’t know what music was playing. There were people everywhere trying guitars, talking guitars, looking at guitars. A sign must have caught my eye, because I began walking with purpose toward the back of the room, past the wall of amps, and then down a little stairway. RECORD STORE DOWNSTAIRS. A-ha.

First you come to a wall of framed photos, members of KISS and autographs from blues legends, stuff like that. A mugshot of David Bowie from when he and Iggy Pop were caught with weed in a Rochester hotel room. Then you come around the corner and there are the rows, the unruly rows, CDs stacked everywhere. Above you, on the high peaked ceiling, more posters, flags. Every inch of wall space bears more memorabilia, most of it autographed. Everywhere piles of stuff that make no sense, bear no order. Just chaos.

That’s when I did that thing, the thing which annoyed me perhaps most of all when I was a record store employee and customers would do it to me: I completely blanked. I had no idea what I was looking for. I had come here with the vague notion of picking up something new to listen to on the ride home, just to get something because I was here, but that constant running list of CDs that I want, that list which never actually gets written down, it completely disappeared on me. And so I wandered around like some music buying novice, feeling stupid and overwhelmed. Suddenly the camera around my neck felt very conspicuous, too.

First thing I pulled out of my head was the Replacements, for those reasons I alluded to above. I was hoping to find some of those shiny reissues. But the shelf was empty, or rather, the general alphabetical area where the Replacements should be, while incredibly crowded, CDs in their longboxes (I know!) jammed into too tight a space, was bereft of anything by the band in question. I wander over to the jazz section, and there I discover that it is perhaps best to stick to rock when shopping at the great HOG, for their jazz section is, well, a token jazz section. Back to the rock section.

Did I mention that this whole time, the store’s stereo is blasting Sabbath? Did I say that?

Hey, I know, how about some Zombies? Yes, the latest Odyssey and Oracle remaster/repackage/reissue. I’ll take that. Then I see the New Release section, or rather, the cardboard boxes sitting atop other stock, dates Sharpied onto their sides, filled with releases from last Tuesday, and the Tuesday before that, etc. At the HOG, this is as organized as it gets. But there was nothing in there I cared to drop $15 on, so I decided to scuttle this visit. I took the Zombies disc up to the cash.

I was pulling my wallet out and trying to downplay the presence of the Olympus E-410 hanging around my neck when the woman at the cash – short, 40s, dressed in black, with black hair, looked like she’d worked in the store since graduating high school 25 years ago – asked in that practiced, offhand way, “Were you looking for anything else?”

“No chance you have any Replacements in stock?” I said. “There wasn’t anything on the shelf. That I could find.”

“Oh man,” she said, “they’re like my favourite band.” That was a good sign. “I think we got those reissues in. They can’t be sold out.” And with that she raced out from behind the counter and led me toward the section. Here she came up empty, too.

“They might be in the back,” she said, and we charged off to a pair of storerooms (closets, really) tucked in the corner. In typical HOG fashion she had to go back and forth from one to the other a few times, because nothing was where it was supposed to be. She asked me which one I was looking for. I said might as well start with Sorry Ma… Forgot to Take Out the Trash. Finally she hit paydirt. She was smiling as she handed me the disc. “Oh man, thanks,’ I said. On the way back to the cash I put the Zombies album back on the shelf (budget, remember).

As she was getting ready to ring up Sorry Ma… she said, “God, I love these guys.” Then: “Wait, you gotta see this,” and again she raced around from behind the counter. In a second she was standing in front of one of the building’s columns, moving a very dusty pile of vinyl. She moved pieces of the stack until she found what she was looking for: a pair of framed shots of the Replacements, one Warner press shot and one snapshot of the band signing autographs in the HOG, probably around 1985 or ’86. Both photos were autographed. I said to her, “Mind if I get a shot of these?” I turned my camera on and fired away.

Back at the counter I paid for the disc, refused the plastic bag, and was on my way when she jerked a thumb over her shoulder and said, “That’s them too.”

And there, chicken-scratched on the wall in black marker, among the band's signatures:

DON’T GIVE UP ON US – Replacements

My head rang. There it was, the meat of those records, and their continuing – rising – appeal to me. Distilled to their essence. Because that’s it: that’s the pulsing, bloody, ragged heart of these songs, and of their effect on me: Don’t give up on us. Meaning: take our stance of disinterest with a grain of salt, but see beneath it; see that what we need is to hope for something bigger. We encrust it all in these layers of bullshit losers’ sloganeering in case, as we half suspect, there’s no point in hoping for something to deliver us. We’re steeling ourselves for the fall we’re almost certain awaits us if we strive. But without the slim hope, the minute sliver of a chance that somebody else is also holding out hope that we might be worth something – anything – we might as well be fucking dead. If you give up on me, I give up on me, and it’s over; I can just sit and wait to die.

I had come all the way to Rochester, to goddamned Irondequoit, to see this, to receive this bit of hope, like a grain of rice. I put it in my pocket and I headed home, back to my wife, my daughter, to my 30s.

I PLACE too much stock in music, depend too much on epiphanies gleaned from Westerberg and Coltrane and Joe Pernice and David S. Ware. I know that. If we’re all running around in 2009 creating self-contained worlds for ourselves and inventing the religious systems therein, then I’m taking musical performances as my scriptures. It might not be healthy, I suppose, but I’ve come too far, done it for too long to stop now. Something about the act of listening (the art of listening?) opens me up and renders me fertile for the seed of goodness. This sounds trite, but it’s true. It’s true that there are times when I simply don’t feel pure enough, good enough, in some way worthy enough to listen to John Coltrane. In those times I have to redeem myself with mind-blanking hard work, or a sincere act, before I feel right enough to listen to “Spiritual” or “Afro Blue” or, most religiously of all, A Love Supreme. There are also three or four pieces of music which have the power to centre and calm me, physically and mentally. Those are the things I plug into as I lay in bed at night, and the things I hum to myself when I feel anxious. With the Replacements, I knew they were right for my mindset, but before I saw that graffiti on the wall of the House of Guitars, I don’t think I could sum up just why, or what it was they said to me. Now I know: Don’t give up on us.

There is music for every emotion, for every longing and for every need, from ecstasy to lust to blackest depression to bemused indifference, etc. At different times I have need for all of it. The music of the Replacements is dear to me, is something I need more often than many others, because it says something I so badly need to hear, because it takes me someplace I desperately need to go: a place of hope amid the bullshit. For a couple of years now I have placed all my hope in my daughter – that’s what parents do, what they should do – but lately I have realized that I must reserve a small bit for myself, too. And that’s what the Replacements have helped me rediscover: the hope that we might be measured not as the people we are, but as the people we want to be.


Ron said...

Don't let go of that need for that most central parameter for measuring our interpersonal commonality! Who says that shared obligations of parenthood should usurp that rare and valuable indicator of an individual's essence? Associations centered around offspring are based on geography. The love of shared music (or any art form,for that matter) is built on mutual appreciation. Keep searching for... Don't "settle" for...

You are a talented writer!

AGF said...

You're kind, Ron. Thanks.

I hope I haven't given the impression that I was/am in the grips of a crushing depression, just kind of bummed and anxious. But you're right, there are things you must hold onto in the face of everything else. These things which make our lives richer, truer.

Nirmala said...

Great post.

Nirmala said...

P.S. There's really so much more to say than "great post," but for now I can only add: YES! House of Guitars. I felt like those commercials were speaking directly to me, like HOG was my own personal Wonderland. Also, I wanted to see J&G Grocery! ("439 Reynolds Street"?) I still do, I suppose. "Ham hocks, fitty-nine cents!"