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Letter to a Young Alternative Rock Fan

August 7, 2014

Dear Layne:

Most of my personal myth seems to refer to events that took place in the early 1980s.  I recognize that this is the time when my life was most absolutely and utterly subsumed by the circus of underground music, unfolding around me as I crouched, strode, swayed, loped and loved through the streets of lower Manhattan, its low-ceilinged ash-and-ale smelling bandclubs, and many neo-tenements slanting above the same.   Not only was my whole life music, but it was a grand and grinning, chic and challenging time for music, too; and I was especially saturated in the world of the far-underground, far-left, ferociously independent music world as I was at no other time in my life.

(Hah, “saturated”?  Nay, my Smiths-idolizing friend, not merely saturated, submerged, deeply submerged in the underground, day and night, from my first handful of Cap’n Crunch around noon to my last swallow of medicinal-tasting Vodka and Orange at the Holiday in the pre-dawn hours, when the East Village was cloaked in darkness, sirens, and the sound of band-flyers being slapped to walls.)

I learned extraordinary lessons during that time; but in the gruesome, fattening and flattening climb up the ladder of age (an ascension which makes time appear to go quicker at precisely the time you wish it would go slower and which offers no reward at the end but the weightlessness of infinite mystery), I realize that what I really learned is that I wish I had known more then.

So, begging your pardon and asking you to briefly set aside the Strokes and Front Bottoms so dear to you heart and instead offer me your precious young ear for a moment or two, I would like to dispense some backwards-glancing wisdom, meant to instruct the forward-thinking Young Alternative Rock Fan.

I begin:  For every band you might be familiar with from that time, there are likely a half dozen more whose names would ring no bell to your finely tuned, Hold Steady-loving ears; let me tell you, in tones hushed and reverent but also hyperkinetic and proselytizing, about some of these.  Let’s name only a treasured few: there’s Liquid Liquid, one of the most original bands this City of Whitman, Melville, and Ginsberg ever produced; they created starlight with rhythms. There’s UT, the most unheralded yet most supremely artful of the early ‘80s Lower East Side noise bands, three women who literally knitted gossamer and iron with their instruments, producing music that was almost indecipherable yet completely affecting.  And can anything compare to the experience of seeing ESG for the first time, in their teenage prime, playing the most supremely melodic, ultra-minimal music?  You almost literally could not make more with less.  And let us salute Glenn Branca, the godfather of all downtown noise music, the maker of great sonic earthquakes and almost disabling metal symphonies, without whom there would be no Swans or Sonic Youth, and no Sonic Youth’s children.

Next, please note the following: Do not, my young friend, spend the precious hours of your youth wasting time pretending to like albums that “feel” important, but are, in fact, piles of old deer scat, humus-like and mossy in texture and smelling akin to weeks-old kitty litter.  If listening to something feels like a job, if you are constantly having to remind yourself “This has gravity, this sounds important,” do yourself a great favor and walk away, quickly, without regret.  I call this the Sandinista and/or Any Radiohead Album After The Bends syndrome.  Seriously.  Life is short, and for every In Rainbows there are a dozen genuinely compelling and majestic ACTUAL “deep” albums out there that fill the listener with joy and expectation of repeated plays, like The Incident by Porcupine Tree, Expensive Sound by Empire, Vibing Up the Senile Man by ATV, Ghosts of Princes in Towers by The Rich Kids, Dopesmoker by Sleep, Watertown by Frank Sinatra, and so very, very many more.  If you are irrefutably in the mood for something familiar yet utterly new, deeply progressive yet defiantly simple and loaded with the same kind of depth you might find in Pet Sounds, We Are The Village Green Preservation Society, or Abbey Road, look no further than Metal Box/Second Edition by Public Image Limited.  In fact, every time you feel the urge to force yourself to pretend you are enjoying a basically unlistenable Radiohead album, JUST PUT ON SECOND EDITION.  This, this, is the real thing. It is one of the greatest and most scene-changing albums of all time.  Oh, also, do you want to listen to a deeply “heavy” album that is a joy to listen to, first moment to last?  Try Searching for the Young Soul Rebels from Dexy’s Midnight Runners — as intense and full of meaning as a Joy Division album, yet delicious to the ear and riven with melody and message.

Speaking of Vibing Up The Senile Man, I pray you to note this:

As the princes, princesses, and pretenders of punk and post-punk age and become memorialized only by their debut albums or some confabulated greatest hits collection (two-thirds of which is drawn from the debut album), it is important to note that some of the best work of many first-rate punk and post-punk bands actually came in their less-heralded second albums, work that has sometimes fallen into obscurity.  So, my teaching here, you barely-shaving lover of Ted Leo, is to pay attention to second releases from bands with legendary debuts.  These include (to detail just a few) Valley of the Dolls, the deep, Mott the Hoople-meets-Quadrophenia second album from Generation X; Cast of Thousands, the songwriterly, almost elegiac sophomore release from The Adverts; the impeccable, virtually flawless, spare and full Chairs Missing by Wire (every bit the masterpiece that their debut, Pink Flag, was, only with just a few breaths added); The Saints Eternally Yours, one of, perhaps, the ten fundamental albums to emerge from the punk movement, a perfection of their formula that mixed rama-lama, riffs, soul, and substance; and there’s even room for a much-abused oddity, the Damned’s second album, the Nick Mason-produced Music For Pleasure; even though it is the least essential of the Damned’s masterful ’76 – ’84 five-album run, it is still a treat, full of the tension of a band coming apart at the seams and fighting the perceived limitations of their sound, but riffing, rolling, and steaming ahead all the same.

Next, and certainly not least:  Listen to Krautrock, a lot of Krautrock.  The seeds of everything good, powerful, stimulating, thought-provoking, and right in Alternative Music lies in the work of Neu!, Can, Ash Ra Tempel, Amon Duul II, Cluster, Harmonia, La Düsseldorf, and Hans Joachim Roedelius.

Most significantly (if I can ask you to turn down the headphones which you presently have on, on which you are surely listening to Les Butcherettes or Speedy Ortiz or the Accidental Seabirds or Not Your Average Goat or whatever suchlike happy malarkey you grinning 20-somethings listen to), here is the prime lesson I wish I could go back and tell my 20-ish year-old self, and which I impart to you with great hope, affection, and sincerity:

I was so wrapped up in the world of alternative and outsider music that I missed some of the truly great rock’n’roll being made in the late 1970s and early/mid 1980s.  I thought an essential part of my identity was to reject the mainstream, to be associated with the underdogs, the college rockers, and the independents; so subsumed was I in this “Us vs. Them” mindset that my mind was closed, too closed, to some magnificent, majestic, thrilling, eternal songs and albums.  For instance, I now know that David Lee Roth-era Van Halen were one of the greatest bands of the rock era; that their combination of riffs, instantly enchanting songs, shellacked-in-steel production, high-end performance (that didn’t distract from the composition), and the indisputable, singular brilliance of Roth, one of the greatest singers and personalities ever to stand under the lights or in front of a mic, made for one of the greatest acts of all time.   Likewise, I wish that someone had tried to impress on me that Rush, despite their inherent ridiculousness (such deep ridiculousness that it almost celebrates itself), were a really good band.  And let’s not even start with Abba, and I most certainly should have spent a great deal more time with Boston, Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, and Steely Dan.

I hardly know what today’s equivalents of these kind of acts are – in other words, who are the mainstream artists actually making consistently excellent, enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding music – but do not assume, just because something is on a major label or plays country music or plays death metal or whatnot, that they aren’t doing something equal to or superior to the groaning army of young ironists who make alternative music.  When in doubt, listen to David Lee Roth-era Van Halen, loud and all the time, it’s pretty much better than anything except maybe PiL and Neu!.

One very important penultimate point, which I pass on to you, you chaser of Screaming Females and Superchunks and Savages and Donkey Baseball, is this advice that I consider essential to any artist, young or old:

Irony Kills Art.

Art, sincerity, passion, heart all die in the shadows of the smug and ironic.

Oh, and finally, anyone under 30 who grows a beard or a moustache is a tool.

With warmest regards, hope, and gratitude for your time,

Timothy A. Sommer, the Godfather of Slocore

(Read but not dictated)

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  • Jim Ohara

    Love this, Tim. Even when I don’t agree with all of it.

    Thought experiment: try to imagine Nina Canal making an American Express commercial, or teaming up with Fred Armisen to do a smug/snarky TV series.