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LAST YEAR/ I FOUND A BAND I LOVE
A few nights ago I had a dream I was talking to Bob Dylan on the phone. It was odd. He was staying up the road and wanted me to walk up and pick peaches, but of course, wouldn't reveal where he was! I have these often. Van Morrison will sometimes visit at 4 AM where I'll be talking to someone who looks nothing like Van (the man), and occasionally I'll get a dream where all the musicians I've criticized are suddenly facing me in a dark alley. As I'm writing this, it's on the brink of Christmas and I've just come back home from hanging out in a record shop in Keene, New Hampshire, located in the plaza of the "Colony Mill Market Place"; which is exactly how the annoying theme-song pitches it every half hour on our local radio station. A decade of school bus rides with that ad chiming like bells had to be the only thing I retained from those days. Yet, today this was a cool place to be. All stuffed with crazy last-minute shoppers tearing out their big hair with tremendous wish-lists from their darling kids.
I was in the corner of the store with this other kid pawing through Andrew Loog Oldham's book, Stoned, and eavesdropped on a mother leading a young employee around by a scribbled list which demanded "The White Stripes" better be somewhere. While the two shuffled about, a man at the desk was unsure what genre of tunes his wife might enjoy, but concluded it had to be, you know, the tender sort. He needed advice from a stranger. Thus the clerk filled the store with tastes of Allison Krauss, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, every so often glancing up at the husband who, frowning, didn't seem impressed. I too couldn't quite picture his wife in all this. She seemed to be more the Sarah Maclaughlin type. The pant-uniform sort. Not the Sylvia Plath dorms of Tori Amos ('cuz there's a difference) but the easy-going host who kept the cd in the car-stereo for weeks on repeat until that one hit song was so scratched, turning the disc over to examine it, would erupt a terrible shriek in the "reserved parking space". It's true I tend not to like this stuff.
That whole Maclaughlin sound sets me on "pause", as though someone pushed a button and I automatically froze like the Tin-man with no axe. But I won't be a Grinch. Standing there amongst the mall clatter, it's no surprise that I or we get tangled up in vivid celebrity dreams. The kind that convince you Dylan is your pal, and the older woman you helplessly have a crush on loves you back. The type that reminds you there's something beyond all the noise and fever, but whatever it is, we search for in the music. Go cat...go.
Like Martha and the Vandellas' "Heatwave"-- which is on the radio right now-- so hot it was like, well...a heatwave (really? You sure it wasn't a gastric cloud of performance art?) During this past year friends, editors or family will ask me why I haven't written much about the sweet modern music. Me being, you know, young, horny and sarcastic. Well, for one, I do listen, just I ain't keen on sharing it, mainly because there's too many old unknowns that continue to light a bonfire, and really, this is where my empathy lies. The other...well, I can't remember, but I believe I left it at the counter that told me pay 17.99 or I was a loser. Also, it's always strange to hear this remark from people out of the sixties, who are convinced that pop-culture is still a valve of social harmony, which it could be, but it appears to be too violent, jaded, and ultimately fucked up to level its baggage with that old essence, no? Especially when most of the parents are all off smashed at a Bruce Springsteen concert; which has morphed into the same chain of a Rolling Stones show (who now play nothing before 1972, and before their love-child of the movement, Brain Jones, died in a swimming pool). My friend was even talking to me the other afternoon about whether or not the "spirit of music" (and we're talking about Jerry Lee Lewis hopping on that grandstand piano), even meant much anymore. Meaning, uh, do kids really give a damn? Er...uh...well...uh. To me, it always will, despite how much they push a Fleetwood Mac reunion tour-- it always has. Oddly, rock seems to be the most unfortunate in the game-- as if a certain shame exists if you listen to some hunky-dory pop-band and not the latest slaughter of no-rock, no-folk weird hellfire. I get the feeling I don't have too many hipster friends, but if I did, I'd be hesitant on admitting that, yes, I probably dig into disco a wee more than I do even Lou Reed...They'd laugh and I wouldn't blame them. Yet, weirdness and excitement-- how damn der' cool is that?
Plus, rock, and famous people in general, are in an ugly predicament. It's no longer cool to wanna be a "star". For instance, you ever grow up reading about your favorite rebellious icon and then one day, just by chance, you see them walking out of a Starbucks?? Case closed.
BUT, there's been plenty of incidents in this past of year of rolling in the hay of contemporary hotness. My friend and I drove around most of the fall listening and commenting on A Perfect Circle's latest album (I promise you, the ninth track steals from Pearls Before Swine's "Guardian Angels", lissen), which persuaded him by winter to enhance his car-stereo to a more pavement-whopping grade. In a way, we were a traveling rhythm narrating what we cited in the music from what was, and wasn't, happening in front of us. I'd come home and play Chopin, flip through some back issue of a music magazine and wonder why barely any of it turned me on (now I have an image of me as an old man). But it isn't a problem, I assure you. Truth is, and go ahead, disagree, I just don't get my kicks, nor can be impartial, to granola folk, indie rock, "show me yr tit" metal bands, and noisemakers who use the word "sonic" as an excuse for downright shitty playing (which has included me at times). It doesn't threaten me-- that'd be great-- it just seems predictable, affected, and oh, really not that much of a heatwave, Martha.
See, I need melody. Yeah, I'm one of them. There are goosebumps that are still welted on my arms from hearing Mingus' "Invisible Lady" crawl up the walls for the first time. Yet, try to comprehend the same affect with a group of people (which I once tried with friends using Iggy Pop), and it's impossible (as opposed to the four grouping of music I mentioned above). Of course, I suffer from a few discreet scars of Rock chain-reaction, like performing air-guitar during the mountain of Led Zeppelin's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You". Whoosh, I can't believe I just said that (don't tell me you haven't done that...). And pop-music. My enthusiasm for that crumbled in November of 2000, finding myself contemplating whether or not to bike twelve miles one-way for a Godsmack album. Uggh. I had a friend, Jess, who even went as far to tattoo the band's official burning-sun logo on her spine, where it still exists today, drifting from state-to-state, job after job. And you know, I'd be lying to say I didn't devour every rock album that gave a damn within the nineties; all to watch a band like Pearl Jam cut off their hair and look like they should be selling kayaks...Well, everything was a bit silly, and eventually traded all these albums in for an over biting addiction to classical music that seems to have grown a set of teeth since. Abandoning your junk collection is partly a mistake, I don't recommend it-- you'll need the spare parts one day. I'd still love to jog back into those hours of rumbling bass and ska-rock dumbness. Imagining what life would be otherwise sitting around the living room with friends talking about how we were gonna join the coast-guards before it was all-too-late; chilling with some rap-rock stupidity. All those bands whose names lay in the forever "out of order" jukebox. But I guess I'll see them all in my dreams.
....That's why I gotta tell you about this one band.
They're called The Arms Of Someone New. You heard of 'em? Probably not. You shouldn't, this band is unknown from the eighties, and once more, forgotten ages ago. It's difficult to write about bands that never "made it". I own hundreds; and have these groups stuffed in my collection and find usually they're the loveliest, just by their dedication and outsider quality, and still be able to sit up sober and strike a chord. I knew The Arms were gold coming home the other day from Keene; the Dylan inertia still biting in my head. Whenever I mention just their name to another critic they perk up and add, "That's a great name for a band." They think for a second. "No, that's really a great name for a band." And yes, honestly, they are one of my favorite bands ever-- ever-- their dreamy calls were a reinvention of rock 'n roll fantasy and noodling paradise. Every song sounded like the Stone's "As Tears Go By" played in the vacuum of a car-wash during a rainy day, and a classic example of a best-friend duo lost in their own private oblivion. The two members, Mel Erbele and Steve Jones, hailed from Champaign, Illinois, home of...well, them, and their studio, The Whistling Zone, which was no more than a shack behind Steve's house, and probably just in his living-room. In fact, Mel, the singer and guitarist, hadn't listened to any of his albums for nearly fifteen years before I called him, whereas Steve had a difficult time recalling what happened during the mid-eighties when he and Mel would hang out all day in his apartment and cut drifting blue-streaks of sound. "We trying to create a hallucinative experience without the drugs," he says today, living in downtown Chicago. Anybody hearing this probably thinks these guys were pink-neck squares. I can't say. Still, if this was their principle, the results were a unique and life-changing (at least for me) weep of music. And this never happens, trust me. I can think of maybe nine instances in my life when the music crept up like a rolling ball of yarn and inadvertently caused me to shout, leap and cry, I GOT BLISTAS ON MY FINGAS! But that's another tale.
Our story is: the two met at a show in '83 while Mel was washing dishes and siding in his band The First Things-- Steve writing rock criticism for Creem and Goldmine, and dramatically dropped in key with one another's long for escape and identity. 1983. I wasn't even born yet, and the year itself was a progressive meeting of indie-alternative dark side. A slapstick from the previous punk anthem with the echoes of Pink Floyd influencing. Through night and day, they would record in a checkerboard of hours, sessions in either Steve's living room, bathroom or closet space, where a lot of the haunting vocals were cut on-spot. Sometimes Mel would even bring his daughter Jackie along and set her on the bed in the other room, where her wails and cries bled through the songs I hear today (which I love, they almost appear to be set backwards in the album). The process was casual and degree to their relationship-- Steve at piano, Mel on guitar, and gradually the words would find a way into the whisper. Melodically Beatles influenced through an era of Joy Division tremolo, these guys are heroes and unlike any of the cheese bandstand the eighties had to offer. The songs were languidly simple-- two notes of a keyboard, some guitar-- but when the voices began brushing through, it was a universe of their own orbit. I love this, and in most cases, can never separate who's singing-- Mel or Steve (though one had a flat tone). Apparently they never played live, and gave little thought to fitting in a niche, as they pressed tapes on to selected branches of the town, soon finding a small audience was gathering under the cold. Records were cut quickly under a few independent labels like Office Records and C'est La Mort (since gone under in the dust), and distributed to every college radio station throughout the country, where the campuses spooned over with their exotic-wave sound. During this whole time, Mel's wife landed some hot job in Boston where he moved for the remainder of the band's career (Mel packing trucks for UPS at night and writing songs by day) randomly collaborating once or twice a year with the tapes they mailed to one another by mail. Things drifted until one day, like we all do, they found, shucks, it had been a decade since their debut. That doesn't mean much, though, because really, they only aged with any significance the more obscure and destitute they became, which is usually the case with rock (imagine if Dylan ended his career right after Highway 61-- what a cult!). Admirable, sure. That is, if you enjoy your ten-dollar royalty check once a year...Not bad.
No seriously, they each get paid this amount annually without failure. That, and the rare times they run into their own records in a store, which in ways, is like encountering an old pet dog one used to own. I'm a sucker for these acts. Especially when they're good, you know? Those who launched themselves in a blizzard of no return...and nobody noticed until much later when someone either reissued them (which the Projekt label has done), or some strange brew rejuvenated a new interest in mid-western bands who lived by the wheezing airwaves of college radio. Sure, there's a lotta junk within these galleries-- all that skank-yard demolition stuff-- but some who went unheard through the masses, came out years later as unabashed echoes of the past. Plus, I just love ethereal music, bottom line. Same goes with books, movies, girls, the interior of a goldfish bowl, and Tim Buckley. This band created a new world, and for me, it's as if waking up another planet and discovering life existed exactly how I wished and desired. A thermal sound of imagination, talent, and unbelievable escape? Fly me to the moon.
Where they came from belongs to the music, too. A Burlington, Vermont record store last summer-- second floor-- a room heaped with a carpet of old college radio albums all priced at a dollar and I'm there thinking, what a bunch of beautiful rubbish, why am I here? Record stores are funny. They're always staggering with men who look like a white Dizzy Gillespie but end up like the Magic Band roadie they-never-hired. This particular one was located right above Nectars, a joint where if you know your pop-trivia, you know da' boyz from Phish first got their groove-machine on here. The outside sidewalk always smells, where there's a kid in a leather jacket asking for change, and is probably the only street in all of Vermont where women will clutch their purses a little closer to their hip. Upstairs, the owner of our record shop insists on playing Little Feat for three hours which I don't mind, because a Shriners parade clogs up the outside street, and I swear, this all makes Julian Cope, Dumptruck, and Carly Simon look like God. All the covers are scribbled with random comments by DJs now long-gone, who I trust beyond any critic. They're honest and knew music-- not the value-- but the primal feeling of youth and being alive. This wasn't their job back then, but their life, philosophy, and yes, unforgiven fun.
The A section. My hands soon flipped across The Arms Of Someone New. Three titles all in a row. Burying The Carnival, Promise, Susan Sleepwalking. I'm sucked in. Outside the room, a kid with a backpack talks about the high idiom of Radiohead with the owner, and soon everything begins to make perfect sense. I knew immediately these records were my lost brothers that I left at the circus (what's that mean? Must've been the Little Feat). Just in the cover-art; a chasm of silent photos that are always the first instinct to possessed music. Later Mel and Steve would tell me that the girl standing in the stone doorway of their debut, Burying The Carnival, was Maria, one of their early fans, and the blurry red gal on the delirious shot of Susan Sleepwalking was a girlfriend. And the turntable in the other room didn't lie, either.
As I sat in the record store with the busted earphones only clicking through one ear, each album trailed through an ambient cycle of songwriting, overdubbed lyrics, that was always accompanied by a cheap ping-pong drum machine (their bizarre signature). I was stunned. There wasn't anything like it. They too even admit some of the splashing material on the albums were pure accidental, and on tracks like "My Friend" you can hear Mel's new-born daughter crying in the background (for years, she would cry because of Mel's lyric in "Jacquline": someday I won't be around). Actually, "My Friends" is my all-time favorite, just in the plain beauty, and unravels out of the dark of Burying The Carnival like headlights through the night. A long, strumming three-chord acoustic trail of young vocals and shaky harmonies that unwound themselves in a different shade than only we could dream. Even taking under consideration the song is just about sitting in a coffee shop with snow falling, the two presented it in such a gazing way, it's hard not to discover pieces of ourselves throughout any of their work. We rely on this. Expect it even after a long day. And dream about it during.
Most of the time they start under tip-toeing guitar notes and soon a whirl of vocals told through delay-effects will slide in, and although Promise in '88 is probably my least favorite out of the batch (just because it's more spruced up with live drumming; one of the few places where I don't admire this tactic), it still captures their blazing wonder of the "project". Which is a good word, because now and then they'd invite assistance from some friends-- Nick Rudd, Henry Frayne, Lynn Canfield-- who would take shelter in the songs, adding a few vocal or guitar textures into the mix. This all bleeds through on their pivotal record (released, I believe, around '85 or '86) Love, Power & Justice. I dig this one for a few reasons. One, sometimes I don't even care for the songs, which is great, because, let's face it, some of 'em began to worship droning (which is never cool, but still excellent). The other reason is because it's nearly a kind of Greatest-Hits out of their transparent terrain of Susan Sleepwalking (they both agree, this is their favorite) and the adolescence of their debut, pouring through in a thawing beyond. A few of the tunes-- "Next Year in Jerusalem", "Believe Me", titles aren't too important with this band-- would evoke the lovely minimalism of the duo (like Syd Barrett had a few kids during his retreat acid-binge and The Arms were the children), and on my copy, a reissue, there's even an extended bonus of 4-track demos and unrelated versions that show you the insides of the rose. Mel's voice had the coolest crisp to it (or was it Steve's?); those Midwestern plains were evident in his lungs, and with "Rainbows" on Susan Sleepwalking, he shares with me that this was written after walking out into the sunny morning from a previous night's ice storm; frozen drops glazing from the tree limbs; "a life-changing experience."
I gotta love this, because he's now openly shot the bulls-eye of why I'm writing this piece: Steve and Mel were ordinary kids. If I hadn't been born when they cut their first album, I'd like to be friends with them. They saw the world through their own looking-glass and made secular music that originated from their emotional growth. The fact that it was so honest made it a culprit for anybody to fall in or out of love with it. I did.
Sorry I gotta make all these testimonies, but I just love this band. Let's just say, I can't imagine life existing without having met The Arms, and most so, Burying The Carnival. Shouldn't this be the feeling? Of course! Something about their division of gothic-psych and self-exploration; like the fog at the end of the lake. And it's weird-- there's no other way to describe the band other than a metaphysical scrabble. Ironically, though, I can't imagine a whole lotta people developing with them. This was all twenty years ago, and for most, that puts one's head in a vice, simply because that material is generally dubbed for "has-beens", even though ninety-percent of the music that's still slinging their tones around today, I consider has-beens. Joy Division and The Cure (probably the closest resemblance) have nothing on The Arms-- these bands, yes, scored a million bucks, but that's all, and became a point of reference to a million come-and-go new-wave bands that marched for infamy and got stuck with fame (bummer). The Arms aren't a great band,their impact is, and an example of a group that didn't sell peanuts and should've. A token of college-radio's disappearing frequency. And get this-- at 43, Mel currently works at a nursing home in Minneapolis as the chief music entertainer...(which means basically singing to old people throughout the day). He hasn't thought about playing much from the old Arms day, but since I contacted him, this will probably change. Give them my hellos, 'cuz it's a long time before this music, and we, will ever say goodbye. Now back to picking peaches...
--Carson Arnold - January 2nd, 2004
copyright 2004 Carson Arnold
H(ear) is an online music column consisting of interviews, articles, and investigations written by Carson Arnold. As a freelance writer for various magazines and liner notes, living in the woods of Vermont with his family, Carson widely encourages one to submit their art, writing or any interesting piece of material that you would like to share. H(ear) is accepting both promos and demos for review or any other valuable music-related subjects. If you wish to make a comment or would like to receive H(ear) weekly by email please contact Carson at [email protected]
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