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April 4, 2006

Book Notes - Alex Green ("The Stone Roses")

Continuum's 33 1/3 series has featured yet another of my favorite albums, the debut release from the Stone Roses. Author Alex Green breaks the book down into a chapter for every track, and every chapter builds not only the story of the band and their seminal album, but also why The Stone Roses is the author's favorite album. This mixture of musical and personal history works surprisingly well, and I now appreciate the album even more.

In his own words, here is Alex Green's "book notes" submission for his book, The Stone Roses:

I think I know now why doctors aren’t freaked out by broken bones. No matter how complicated the break—even the ones that are so grotesquely comprehensive they send shards of cartilage through the skin in twisted blasts of geometry--the sheer volume of splintered limbs that cross doctor’s desks can make the empathy of even the most sensitive physician give way to a cold practicality whose clinical detachment would make one think they were surely in the company of the bloodless. Invariably if you’re in the presence of what seems to you to be a truly original bone break, artistically twisted as it may seem, when you present it to the doctor they’ll have a look on their face that will suggest they’re thinking not again.

The only exception to this--at least that I’ve heard of--came in college when late one night the Bactoli Brothers, those strapping lads who were best known for ferocious gridiron endeavors, dragged a guy out of his dorm room and beat him up so badly that when they brought him to the hospital, I’m told the doctor found two new bones in the human hand and couldn’t hide his glee.

Okay, so there’s that—but there’s always one of those.

After writing about The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut for the 33 1/3 series on seminal albums, I now understand why after constant exposure things can stop looking like anything at all. When I first received the go-ahead to write the book I was still listening to The Stone Roses at as much as I ever had. Up to that point, I had explored the album thoroughly, but never bothered to decipher its lyrics (“Don’t Stop” was still just “Waterfall” upside down, the words a frisson of backwards utterings and mumbly nonsense), learn the lore of each song, or read any history about how the album came together.

In other words, the magic was still magical. But then I realized that to write the book effectively and apprehend the album’s essence, I would need to take a hammer, a spade and a weedwhacker and get to work cutting away at its mystery. And over the course of a year, I found myself, sleeves rolled up, sorting through its thick, murky layers, and diving deep inside its watery trenches, each time coming to the surface with archaeological findings I hoped later would come together and at least closely resemble an answer key.

As a result, an album which to me for fifteen years was a seamless and jangly song cycle about fame and girls and immortality, became, for lack of a better term, sterilized with numbing specificity. I walked away from my excavation with an inherent understanding of The Paris Student Riots of 1968, the rise and fall of Thatcherism and the history and cultural significance of Ecstasy. Clarifying riches of sociological value as they were, I’ll be the first to admit, I was kind of bummed about what the whole process yielded. Here’s why.

A few years ago the freshman Composition class I was teaching had just finished a discussion about a fabulous essay by Michael Wex and we had about ten minutes left before we were to adjourn. I was about to let them go, when this kid in the front—a wiry little aspiring magician who liked to wear his top hat to class--asked if he could do a magic trick for everyone. I agreed and a minute later he had made me choose a card from a suddenly splayed deck, show it to the class for verification and then return it to the deck. Then he ran to his backpack and pulled out a handful of oranges. He made me pick an orange and when I did, he proceeded to tear into it. And with juice and pulp dripping down his forearm, and the sweet smell of citrus in the air, to everyone’s amazement he produced my soggy card. He held it to the sky, the class cheered and that was that.

Sort of.

After everyone left, I took him aside and told him he had to tell me how he did it—his grade depended on it. Violating the magician’s oath for the sake of a B-, he gave up the trick and endowed me with an understanding as to how he pulled it off. For the class he was commuted into a superstar, but for me, his trick exposed, his illusion effectively neutered, he just went back to being the kid in the front wearing the top hat.

I shouldn’t have pushed him to tell me how it was done, but I had to know. And once I knew I wished I didn’t. And once I put The Stone Roses on the operating table, cut it open, dissected it and pickled it in jars that still sit in my creepy little lab, it distilled the mystical qualities of the album into bland simplicity. “(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister” for example, was remodeled from a blissful meditation on love into a simple song about a prostitute who feels sad that she’s a prostitute and a guy who feels sad that he’s feeling so much for her.

And this just kept going on. One by one, I deciphered the secret code of each song, thereby squeezing out any spark of intrigue each one may have previously held, until finally, I understood every nuance and every second of musical gradation the album possessed. And that was fine, because this kind of research served the book, and as its author I was quite pleased with my findings, but as a music fan, one who is still seduced by a big chorus of a pop song, I was a bit disheartened by the whole process for a while.

So when people ask me if I got sick of The Stone Roses, the answer is yes. And no. Mostly no, because after the 1,234,876th listen, I happily and thankfully found that I wasn’t tired of listening to the songs. But what was alarming was that at one point, I realized the songs themselves had stopped sounding like anything anymore. I knew them so well, had broken their separate codes so thoroughly that they had no more mystery to present, and as a result, to put the album on was like putting on silence.

But maybe that’s just how these things go and in order to figure out why we truly love something we have to cruelly dismantle it. That part wasn’t too hard, because The Stone Roses contains layers of fascinating nuance. The hard part was learning to love it again after putting it back together. I’m happy to report now, by the way, that enough time has passed and I’ve found that I love the album more than ever, which is a massive relief.

But there were dark times. I know it had to be this way and I’ll just attribute it to one of the many job hazards of being a music journalist—another one: not making much money—but in order to keep it together, when I was done writing for the day, I would go hungrily to other bands to cleanse the sonic palette, as it were, and to remind me that there are other mysteries in the world that I’ll never solve.

Here’s who got me through:

The Clash “The Card Cheat”

People have been talking about London Calling for years and I hope they keep doing it, but for all the adorational chatter it elicits, no one ever mentions “The Card Cheat.” Not only is this my favorite track on the album, it’s my favorite Clash song of all time. It’s got this kind of desperate speed and throbbing urgency and the line “If he keeps on dying slowly/He won’t be alive for long,” makes the mater at hand sound positively crucial. It’s not a song about knowing you’re running out of time—we already know we are--it’s a song about knowing you’re running out of time and not doing anything about it. Every time I hear it, it reminds me that life has to have energy in order to be vital. Not that deep, I know, but to me it always sounds like it’s trying to make a point about me personally. And that’s when I turn off the TV special Great Moments In Danish Soccer, wash the dishes, put on a headband and go out searching for a revolution.

The Smiths “Jean”

If anyone tells you The Smiths are far too mopey and doleful, punch them in the stomach and play this one for them. The rhythm section shines first—Johnny Marr comes in with this sexy riff that just moves in slinky twists all over the place, while Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke join him in a slithery and shaking backbeat that is pure hips and legs.
And when Morrissey shows up, he’s in a foul mood as usual, but he’s oddly circumspect about the life he’s chosen and decides, mid-song, to give it all up. “The low-life has lost its appeal,” he bemoans and when he does, I start to wonder when it will for me, too. I remember thinking in high school, when I was decked out in my Husker Du t-shirt and my threadbare black Chuck Taylor’s that there would come a day when I would leave all this fascination with music behind, make tons of money and sit in the highest room of my estate wearing a smoking jacket and drinking expensive wine from Rome. I envisioned that in an English accent I would say something like: “Ah yes, I remember the punk and I remember the rock. What fun we had when the Meat Puppets ruled the universe.” In other words, I thought that there would be a day when, wracked with accomplishment I would look back at my misspent musical youth (pass the dutchie, indeed)--where I blew every penny of my paycheck on Jazz Butcher imports and spent school nights at nightclubs watching The Dream Syndicate play Bob Dylan covers--with nostalgic fondness and amusement. But the low life seems to still hold the same appeal because nothing has really changed for me. I’ve got stacks of CDs all over my house and I spend most of my nights watching bands in little clubs all over San Francisco, work the next morning be damned. And I’ve still got that Hukser Du t-shirt,

The Music Lovers “The Former Miss Ontario”

There’s nothing better than Matthew Edwards’ vampire Casanova roaming the twinkling streets of the city looking for a romantic tragedy. His band’s first album The Words We Say Before We Go To Sleep captures the art of the late night prowl and the lonely pull of early morning devastation where one awakens to the shattering reality of how sad sex with strangers can be. Unbelievably, on this song, he finds someone sadder than he is and it makes him, by the end of it, even sadder still. But no one wins. This is just a gorgeous number about sucking at romance and hating how old we’re all getting. Aural regret stirred to utter, wistful perfection.

Blur “Country House”

Boasting a big swervey chorus, plunking rhythms, call and response vocals and Damon Albarn’s deadpan delivery, this is my favorite Blur song. Being a bit of a health nut and a sucker for repeats of Wings, when Albarn sings, “He lives in a house, a very big house in the country/Watching afternoon repeats and the food he eats in the country,” it always hits pretty close to home. But not that close--I have a small house in the suburbs, with eight Starbuck’s in throwing distance. Lots of light jazz in my neighborhood. Nevertheless, this is a wondrous number—frantic, busy and joyfully cluttered, it’s a rollicking slab of cynicism and bliss.

Sam Cooke “Bring It On Home To Me” (Live Version)

One of the best “I’m really, really, really sorry” songs of all time, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me,” was recorded at the Harlem Square Club in 1963 into eight mikes plugged into a three track and channeled through a twelve position mixer located just above the dance floor. That fact alone has always astounded me because the clarity is deeply impressive given the technique in which this was captured. But engineering aside, what’s important here is the performance itself. A sweatier explosion of contrition and conscience-stricken remorse has never been heard with as much heart-stirring candor as this. And it’s more than just mere confession—because it’s done in front of a crowd, aired out in public for everyone to see, this takes one man’s single, unalloyed apology and kicks it upwards into a kind of spiritual testifying before the universe that he blew it.
The apogee of soul. It gets no better.

Alkaline Trio “We’ve Had Enough”

My favorite band of murderpunks, Alkaline Trio play right into my hand here, because I’m a sucker for any song that mentions radios. This is just a big, crunchy anthem about how there’s nothing on the radio that accurately echoes the “despair that we feel.” In other words, Mariah Carey may be translating the pain of the internal world, but she’s not speaking for everyone. Good to know. “Turn that f*cking radio off,” sings Matt Skiba and upon hearing that, it would always remind me that sitting around the house writing about The Stone Roses was a necessary thing to do, but so was living my life. So I’d turn that f*cking radio off and go out and hit tennis balls. I should also add that I love songs that allude to other albums, so when Skiba sings, “That said, we've had enough/Put Walk Among Us on and turn it up,” I always find the Misfits reference quite rousing.

Treat Williams “I Got Life”

Okay, so no one ever has said that Treat Williams rocks, but he of The Substitute and Everwood is far more of an accomplished thespian than you might think. When I was in fourth grade I saw the movie version of Hair on Showtime and this number, which came replete with Mr. Williams tabledancing after crashing a ritzy party, is the first song I’d ever heard that made me want to be something. I don’t mean one who crashes parties and hops on tables, but one who had “crazy ways, darlin’” and “million dollar charms, cousin.” It made me think there was a big, sexy world out there and all I had to do was go get it. At twelve, I put this song on before my race against John Lawson to see which of us was going to represent our swim team in the county meet. I beat his ass pretty badly and all through those laps I thought of Treat Williams swinging from chandeliers and boldly announcing himself to the universe. I went back to this song for pure inspiration when I was writing the book, but when I came across “Manchester,” which happens to be the hometown of the Stone Roses, I knew I was also there for a reason.

The Crush “Mission Viejo”

A cover of an old Lifter Puller number, done like a young, tough Soul Asylum in 1986. It’s a great song, but these boys take it somewhere towards the end of summer, where, ragged and charged with sexual desire the imminent arrival of the school year vandalizes the placid everclear forever days of the waning solstice. And the lamentation takes place in your girlfriend’s brother’s car, where alongside his crappy Bon Jovi and White Lion cassettes you kiss her like mad until the sun goes down and California crumbles into darkness and you want to kill yourself for wasting so much time and not figuring out how to remix the summer so that you can live there with her forever. Know what I’m sayin’?

The Brokedown “Down In The Valley”
Armed with the pop sensibility of The Monkees’ Davey Jones and the elegant, rootsy chops of Gram Parsons, The Brokedown’s Ross Flournoy is one of those singers who comes right out of the box with charisma and presence. “Down In The Valley” is a big, lusty pop song that begins with a slow rumble and builds instantly into an infectious crescendo, replete with sweetly vellicating tambourines, jangly guitars, a reeling organ, a bouquet of handclaps and an invigorating chorus of astonishing pop proportions. “Down In The Valley” is all shimmy and shake, its execution flawless, its appeal crossing the borders of irresistible and settling comfortably in the camp of f*cking Amazing

Orange Juice “Blue Boy”

Maybe it’s those fiery bullet drums at the start, or that accusing post-punk guitar that slices in unannounced, or Edwyn Collins’ irresistible cadence, which spits out consonants in snarlingly roguish hiccups. Who knows? But this is as devilishly charming as anything by The Smiths and as charged as anything by The Clash. One of the band’s most enervating singles for sure.

Patty Griffin “Half A Person’ (Live)

Yeah, I stole this from a person who stole it from someone else who shouldn’t have had it in the first place, but it was worth the footwork, believe me. Patty Griffin is one of my favorite singers in the world and this cover of The Smiths’ “Half A Person” is a rare treat. Accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, which she’s never been shy about pounding on, Griffin’s take on this number is a bit different than its author’s. While Morrissey has the mien of a malcontent, Griffin has the bearing of a survivor, so when she sings “That’s the story of my life,” she might as well have her sleeves rolled up so you can see the scars going up and down her arms. In other words, her pain may be ancient history, but like tattoos, her scars form maps of the past that provide proof of what she’s gone through. Moz, on the other hand, endearing as he may be, embodies the song as one who is still booking himself in wherever he can get work as a backscrubbber. Griffin has risen above all that desperation—she’ll show you the evidence, while Morrissey will just show you a long, long brush.

see also:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)