Wax Stories #7: Nirvana – Bleach

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Whenever there’s a Nirvana related anniversary, I get oddly nostalgic. It always feels a bit misplaced. I was alive through Nirvana’s ascension but I’m pretty sure I was more interested in Mr. Rogers’ cardigans at the time – not Kurt Cobain’s. Nevertheless, when I released today is what would have been Kurt’s 46th birthday, I immediately went to my record shelf to play some of his work as a tribute.

I started to get into Nirvana when I picked up their greatest hits at a Sam Goody on a whim when I was 14. It’s a super lame way to get into a band (as detailed in a post I did in 2011), but it opened up the door for me at least. The music struck me in a way that nothing else had before. The demolishing crashes of the drums, the gritty sloppiness of the bass, the cutting sound of the guitar, and Kurt’s aching angry voice; it was fuel for my burgeoning teenage angst. I’d later pick up a CD copy of MTV Unplugged In New York to flesh out the image of Kurt as a misunderstood artist. He was not just a musician in my eyes. He was a symbol of identity and struggle that I thought I could relate to.

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In the summer of 2005 I went over to West Seattle for a day where my mom had an office near California Avenue. She pointed me in the direction of the Easy Street Records down the road and I eagerly made my way over there. I had only just recently got my record player a few months before. I made my way upstairs to the vinyl section to partake in one of my first Seattle crate digging experiences. There was no real agenda, nothing in particular I was hoping to find. This was also the first time I’d get a chance to buy a record new instead of used from a junk shop. I was a bit floored when I found the Nirvana section. For some reason I never really thought that they’d have anything available on wax and thought this rare opportunity – I had to pick up one of these. I inspected the track list on the back of each album and weighed out which was going to make the most sense. In Utero and Nevermind both featured tracks that I already had on my greatest hits CD so I dismissed those (dumb, dumb, dumb). I seriously considered picking up the Unplugged album because I thought it would sound so good. I remembered my dad telling me that on acoustic albums you could sometimes hear the fingers moving across the strings on vinyl releases.

I held up Bleach and examined it. The cover was stark and intense. A negative photo of Kurt headbanging with the band behind him in what appears to be a basement. I recognized one of the tracks, “About A Girl,” but everything else was unfamiliar. The fact that it was their first album also intrigued me. Sub Pop. That name sounded vaguely familiar. White vinyl? The case for Bleach got stronger and stronger the more I looked at it.

It must have been a funny sight to watch a gangly kid 15-year-old wearing cargo pants and probably a buttoned up, bright colored short sleeve shirt walking up to the counter clutching Bleach. I imagine the disenchanted cashier wanted to face palm at the sight. Maybe not.

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I had to wait till we got home late that night to listen to it. Funny how most of my early memories of vinyl are listening to them late at night on low volume in my room. Krist’s sludgy bass lead in on “Blew” bellowed out of my crackling speakers. Immediately it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was used to Kurt being dark and lots of heavy guitars, but this felt different. There was a sense of doom looming over their playing. It was unrefined and harsh. It only got more so by the time the needle moved over to the second track, “Floyd the Barber.” The low thumps of guitar synchronized with the drums gave a sense of impending dread. I anxiously awaited for “About A Girl” to come on so I could hear something familiar. When it finally did I rejoiced in the Beatles sensibilities and brighter guitar tones.

I knew I liked the album because it was Nirvana, but looking back I’m not entirely sure how keen I was to the record. I played it repeatedly because that’s what I thought a Cobain disciple should do. I was supposed to like it. I desperately tried to relate to it. “Hah! On ‘School’ he talks about high school and there being ‘no recess.’ I know what that’s like!” Obviously I wasn’t exactly Lester Bangs in my interpretations, but I was trying. I did take to “Love Buzz” almost immediately with its incredible bass groove. I stayed away from the b-sides for the most part, which were marked by a label depicting the circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno. My aversion came down to one primary reason, which in turn applied to the whole album and that I would not admit to myself at the time: Bleach terrified me.

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While Nevermind had just as much self-deprecating and fuming imagery, it also had Butch Vig’s crisp production to act as a filter. It’s like when you ask someone how they’re doing and they unload you all their problems without even easing into it. Bleach was full-on Cobain without anyone interpreting or holding him back. Not that I think Nevermind is in anyway lackluster. If anything it succeeded in making Kurt’s pain accessible to a wider group of people. I didn’t feel prepared to jump into this without Vig holding my hand.

Over the course of the summer, I found myself coming back again and again to the last track on side a – “Negative Creep.” Sometimes I’d drop the needle on just that track over and over again just to hear it. This is when I started to have my revelation. Kurt wasn’t the “loveable martyr” I’d made him out to be who opted to burn out instead of fading away. He was more like the intense guy I tried to avoid making eye contact with at shows, scribbling “fuck you” furiously in his notebook. I wanted desperately to believe that he and I had so much in common, but we really didn’t. Not only was he dealing with different (and albeit, much bigger) issues in his life, he was also just living in a different world. I was going to a private school, had a dopey golden retriever, and said “shoot” instead of “shit.” As much as I thought of myself as a negative creep, I really wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune from feeling emotions of angst or despair. We all can feel like negative creeps sometimes, but most of us don’t embody it or suffer through it like Kurt did.

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My image of Kurt was broken down even more as I read Charles R. Cross’ biography on Kurt, “Heavier Than Heaven,” this last summer. The inkling I had that Kurt had it worse was proved to be true. I began sympathize for him instead of empathize with him. Looking back at Bleach in the context of the rest of his life is overwhelming and daunting. It’s not even that there’s an excess of imagery of suicidal imagery like some of his later work. It’s the brashness and dissonance and loudness that grabs me. To me, Bleach is his most tortured sounding work. I can feel more uncomfortable listening to tracks on here than I do listening to tracks like “Rape Me.”

Bleach feels more accessible to me today than it did in 2005. A lot of that I can attest to my change in taste over the years. My heart still pounds when the bass comes in on “Blew” and I’ve taken to screaming along to some of the b-sides (“gimme back me alcohol” on “Scoff” may be one of my favorite Nirvana lines now). It’s hard to think of many other records in my collection that has received this much consistent replay. Despite how much I’ve listened to it, I’ve come to terms that I’m never going to fully understand it or any of the bands other albums. Kurt will always have a shroud of mystery to him. I wish we could have understood him so we could have helped. Now I think the next best thing we can do is celebrate his life by indulging in his music in those those negative creep moments.

Happy birthday, Kurt.

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Previous Wax Story: The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism

Next Week: Japandroids – Celebration Rock

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Wax Stories #6: The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism

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Spring 2009

The first time I heard The Avett Brothers was in the lounge of Second West Ashton Hall, a dorm at Seattle Pacific University. I was sitting with Kristin, hanging out on our laptops and talking. We’d only been dating for maybe a month at this point. Somehow music came up in conversation, as it often did (and still does) and she mentioned that she just started listening to this band called The Avett Brothers. She pulled up her iTunes and played me “Die Die Die.” I freaked out.

I was on a folk binge at this point, mostly singer-songwriters. Recently I’d become more inclined to explore my bluegrass roots. My grandfather is a bluegrass stand-up bass player and I grew up going to festivals (if you get the chance, my grandma would love to tell you all about the time she pushed me around in a wheel barrel when I fell asleep early one night). So when I heard those jangly guitar chords and banjo noodlings, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. Strangely though, in my excitement, I insisted to Kristin that it sounded reminiscent of “Pink Triangle” by Weezer. It doesn’t sound anything like that at all.

A lot of our first hangouts and dates revolved around exchanging music. We’d sit on her dorm floor with our laptops and switch USB drives (sorry, music industry). I requested she give me Emotionalism. For the rest of the quarter, I devoured the album. I found “Shame” to be poignant and the harmonies on “Weight of Lies” felt otherworldly. However, the standout track for me was almost instantly “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” Kristin felt the same.

The rest of spring quarter was constant trips to Gas Works Park, skipping classes because it was too sunny and warm to hang out in a dull classroom, and walking around Seattle with no real destination. It was the cliche fledgling college romance. As summer came closer, we both finalized our plans. I was going to Alaska with my good friend Zach and soon-to-be buddy John to work at a helicopter tour company in Juneau, Alaska. She was going to volunteer at an orphanage in the Philippines with her friend Patricia for most of the summer. We’d only been dating a couple months as the school year came to an end, but it never really crossed our minds to break up. Following the cliche romance story, “The Ballad of Love and Hate” played through my laptop speakers as she came to say goodbye to me for the summer (I kid you not, that actually happened).

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Summer 2009

Since Kristin was across the globe, I wouldn’t be able to call her for most of the summer. Instead our only option was to write letters. I started writing my first one while on the plane to Juneau but didn’t mail it out until she left for the Philippines. The second letter I sent was some weird joke about me being pregnant with a drawing of me on the bottom with a big belly. These would the only two letters she would get for the first half of the summer. I felt like a dumbass.

During my first week there I stopped in at a coffee shop called Heritage Coffee in downtown Juneau with Zach and John. Heritage was some sort of chain exclusive to Juneau, but it always felt like being back in Seattle when I stepped inside of one. The first thing I saw was this tall man with a huge beard serving gelato wearing a t-shirt with the Emotionalism album artwork. He even looked strikingly like Seth Avett.  I’m not usually one to reach out and make conversation with people I don’t know, but I was flabbergasted that someone else  knew who The Avett Brothers were – and in Juneau no less! I ordered my drink and hesitated before saying “hey cool shirt, I love The Avett Brothers.” He lit up. He was just as surprised as we were. His name was Jacob Warren. We had a quick conversation about music and later found out he actually had already befriended John before Zach and I flew up.

About a week later we biked over to the local hang out – The Waffle Co. The bike I was borrowing from a coworker was hard to ride. I’d later find out the tires and handlebars were bent. The ride over was so rough that I considered just turning back but trekked on anyway since I didn’t have anything else better to do. Most of the evening we just hung out on our computers so Zach and John could Skype with their girlfriends. Over the course of the summer I’d become exceedingly jealous of their luxury to call their girlfriends whenever they wanted. As the night progressed more people John knew started showing up, including Jacob and a crew of other people. Eventually as the shop’s closing hour was imminent, Jacob picked up a guitar and started playing some Avett Brothers songs. I was hanging out on the outskirts and keeping to myself most of the night, but this caught my attention. The bigger surprise came when another five or six other people started singing along with him. I joined in too. We sang through “Die Die Die,” “I Would Be Sad,” “Go To Sleep,” and ended with “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” The whole time my mind was elsewhere.

We’d write more and more letters for the rest of the summer, which then evolved into phone calls when she got back to the states. A few weeks before I came home she saw The Avett Brothers play in Seattle with her friend Nicole. Then finally in September I met her in Seattle for a sweet reunion.

Summer 2010

Kristin was going to be gone again this summer, this time for a study abroad trip to France. I tried to think of a way I could afford to meet her there but the funds just weren’t possible. I opted to stay in Seattle that summer and work while I lived in a studio apartment with my roommate Michael. I got a job street canvassing for the ASPCA, trying to raise money to stop dog fighting. It was miserable. Every day I worked for minimum wage, trying to make a quota, while people repeatedly put me down or ignored my existence. I wasn’t making any money and I couldn’t talk to Kristin. Her Internet access was limited for most of the summer so our Skype sessions were sparse.

Eventually I decided I needed to do something to lift my spirits. Zach was living in Portland, Oregon now with his dad and invited me to come visit. The Avett Brothers were going to play at Edgefield and he thought it’d be fun if we went together. So I readied my car and prayed it’d make it all the way to Portland. It was getting pretty spotty and starting at this point but I wasn’t willing to miss an excuse to get out of town. Luckily I made it with no issues and Zach’s dad paid us to paint a room in his house so I made my gas and ticket money back. The show was great. Between every song I prayed they’d play “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” They didn’t.

In August I picked Kristin up from the airport with sunflowers. I made a special mix for her in the car. The first track was “The Ballad of Love and Hate.”

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January 2011

On New Year’s Day Kristin decided to give me an early birthday present: Emotionalism on 180 gram vinyl. I’d spotted it at Easy Street Records in Queen Anne a couple months before and apparently she took notice too. I played it in my studio apartment on repeat all day as Michael and I cleaned our apartment up from New Year’s Eve festivities and prepared for people to come over for my 21st birthday party at midnight. I’d never had such a nice record. Triple panel gate-fold. High quality pressing.

Later Kristin greeted me at my apartment with a square piece of cake she made herself with a lit candle on a platter.

December 24 2011

I drove in my car from Port Orchard to Auburn with my guitar in the backseat and a diamond ring sitting on the passenger seat, screaming along to Nirvana to get out my nerves. In my guitar case I had the guitar chords to “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” I couldn’t decide if I wanted to play that song or a song I wrote about her and our time apart in Alaska. Eventually I chose the later. She said yes.

August 2012

I spend a week before the wedding meticulously writing every word to “The Ballad of Love and Hate” on a shoe box covered in brown paper. I had no Internet access in my new apartment (which Kristin would be moving into after the wedding) so I had to use the lyric sheet from the record she bought me. At the end of each complete set of lyrics I made sure to write in red the last line “I’m yours and that’s it, forever.”

August 18 2012

The wedding party and I walk down the aisle as my friends Taylor and Marshall play an instrumental version of “The Ballad of Love and Hate” on acoustic guitar and violin respectively. The song fades out and transitions to another Avett Brothers song: “The Perfect Space” off of I And Love And You. The crowd turns and Kristin begins her walk down the aisle with her parents. I’m caught off guard as I start crying and look over to my best man Zach who just smiles and says “I know.”

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Previous Wax Story: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Next Week: Japandroids – Celebration Rock

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Wax Stories #5: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

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I can’t be the only one with strong ties to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. There’s so many stories I connect with this album. The physical vinyl LP was given to me with several on Christmas Eve of 2011 by Kristin the night I proposed (I’ll do a separate blog later on detailing all of these records and tell that story). There was also the time I avoided listening to “Jesus, Etc.” for a year after Nate sent me the mp3 because I thought the title sounded sacrilegious and then it went on to become my favorite song of all time. But I always come back to one particularly unremarkable night in my car when I think about this album: the elusive night drive.

It was my sophomore year of college and I was living at home during winter break. I had just gotten off the ferry in Bremerton after seeing Devendra Banhart play at the Showbox at the Market in Seattle. The show got out late and the ferry ride took about an hour so by the time I arrived at the terminal it was already 2 a.m. I made my way to the underground parking lot praying I didn’t get a ticket. I was late on my way to the ferry earlier in the day so I didn’t have time to pay for parking and still make the boat – so I unwisely decided to take the risk of getting a parking ticket. As I walked toward my car I sighed relief as I saw no envelope in my windshield.

At this time I was driving a 1985 Nissan 300 ZX. As I mentioned in my Grand Ole Party blog, I’m not a car nut – but I loved this car. It was charcoal gray, had two doors, and featured a futuristic digital dash display (that often lied to me about my gas tank). The car had a lot of issues and my dad helped me keep it going for a long time. He originally bought it from a coworker as a project car but once I gave it a spin it bewitched me. Everyone I came across told me that my car looked like it would be my car. I played my first gigs hauling instruments in the small backseat, took it on some of my first dates, got lost on many trips around Seattle by myself in it, and almost died a few times in it when the acceleration lulled out (much to my future wife’s terror a few times – sorry, Kristin). My dad put in a new CD player in the car before I got my license. The first song I listened to in the car when I finally could drive alone was “Hell Yes” by Beck off of Guero, but Wilco has been in my cars pretty much from the first week of driving through now.

I turned on the ignition and punk noise blasted from the aging speakers. I ejected the disc – The Divorce’s There Will Be Blood Tonight, and searched through my middle console for the right music to fit the mood. My car was always messy so I’d have to sift through dozens of unmarked mix CDs and busted jewel cases to find what I wanted. I finally settled on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I wonder how the night might have felt differently if I’d left in The Divorce or just put in some random mix. In either case, Jeff Tweedy was going to soundtrack me through a introspective, heist feeling that would result in vague revelations and zero theft.

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I Am Trying to Break Your Heart

I pulled out of the parking lot and down the road, focusing hard to not make any stupid turns. I’m notorious for having a terrible sense of direction, even in places I’m familiar with. Eventually I was spit out near Callow Avenue in downtown Bremerton. At a stop light, I looked into a parking lot in front of a strip mall where a church I used to attend once met. Feeling nostalgic, I briefly considered pulling into a parking space to look at the empty room but noticed someone else was already there doing exactly that. Instead I drove on. I took a left on Callow and passed some of my favorite old haunts and venues that I used to play shows at – namely The Charleston as well as the The Artists For Freedom and Unity Gallery. I laughed to myself as I took a look at Elmo’s Adult Book Store. At this point I start to think I should right down all of these thoughts I was having when I got home (which I did in a scattered Facebook note).

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I continued down the road and hoped on the highway. Large sections of Highway 16 are not lit very well, so at night there’s this looming darkness that adds to the solitude when you’re on the road alone. Hardly anyone drives this late around here. Whereas when I’m driving in the city I get flustered, highway driving always puts me at ease. I let my thoughts wander just enough so I can still keep focus. I run through different ideas about music, writing, and relationships that all seem revolutionary until I forget them immediately when I reach my exit.

Radio Cure

I took the Sedgwick Exit, passing a Shari’s hexagon and the golden arches. As my car climbed up the hill I remembered a hitchhiker I saw the night before at this spot. I started to regret not picking him up. Was it the safer choice? Am I a bad person for assuming the worst in people? There is something wrong with me. I began to wonder if I stress to much about trying to be a good person and put unrealistic expectations on myself.

War On War

I drove by an abandoned gas station across from Fred Meyer. For some reason whenever I see this place I remember when my mom would take me here on my way to school in Kindergarten to buy my lunch. I loved the Oatmeal Raisin “Grandma’s Cookies.” Now the building is vacant. But tonight there are a bunch of cars parked in front of it with their lights on. I may not be the best judge, but it looked like something sketchy was going down. I briefly considered pulling through the parking lot to catch a glimpse of what was happening. I also consider calling the police to let them know of the suspicious activity. In the end, I do neither. There is something wrong with me.

Jesus, Etc.

I decided after this that I was going to take the long way home, which really meant go out of my way to make the trip longer. It was an impulse more than a plan. And by impulse I mean hunger. I was really craving some Taco Bell. I’d become accustomed to late night Taco Bell or 7/11 runs with friends. To me, going to grab fast food at two in the morning wasn’t a big deal at all. Though in this moment I wonder if I’m really making healthy choices, but quickly disregard that thought as silly.

As “Jesus, Etc.” played, I started to think about “the state of contemporary music” and got myself t into a self entitled fury. Then I started to feel like an asshole. Who really cares what I think? In the end my opinion doesn’t really have much weight on what the masses should like. What right do I have to be legitimately concerned about music – like it’s some sort of maternal (or paternal) instinct? I chalked it up to me being a pretentious hipster asshole and make not to try and not be a pretentious hipster asshole.

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Ashes of American Flags

I pulled up to the Taco Bell on Mile Hill only to find all of the lights off. I thought, “maybe it’s still open and they just turned off most of the lights to save energy or something.” I decided to go through the drive-thru anyway. I was sure that Taco Bell was open till 3 a.m. Going through the dark pathway was haunting. The noise at the end of “Ashes of American Flags” played as I drove. The menu lights were off and the street lamps were dark. I got out as fast as I could. Some sort of paranoia told me I needed to leave. I was ashamed at how terrified I was.

Heavy Metal Drummer

I was still hungry.

A part of me wanted to get into some sort of mischief, but it was really unlikely that I would. The only place that I could think of that would be open with greasy, ready-to-eat food was a convenience store. My route changed to AM/PM. I drove down the hill to the AM/PM and pulled in to the parking lot and spot a souped up, red sports car (the make I didn’t try to identify, but it noted to myself that it looked stupid). A guy sat in it with who I assume is his girlfriend. He began revving his engine at me. I laughed to himself. I could tell he was trying to impress his lady friend. Obviously calling out me and my unwashed, dirty Nissan is going to be a panty dropper. But in my head I played out the situation as something else. Maybe he mistook me for someone else. Someone he had a grudge against and he was waiting for me to come out of the store so he can make his attack. I began to become a short-lived inside joke with myself as I walked into the store and picked up a cheeseburger that’s been there for who knows how long.

I’m The Man Who Loves You

As I stepped out of the store I saw Mr. Red Car Doucebag still sitting with his engine on at the opposite side of the parking lot.

“Maybe I wasn’t being so absurd after all…,” I thought.

Everything then seemed so cinematic. I began to imagine that he wanted to race me. Maybe he had thought my car was actually a racing beast that I hid under a layer of grime so people wouldn’t bother me. I’ve always had an active imagination.

I quickly hoped into my car and rushed to the opposite exit of the parking lot. “I’m The Man Who Loves You” is booming in my speakers and I could not think of a better get away song in that moment. I was smiling to myself as I pulled on to Jackson Avenue. I had gotten away. Then the realizations came. He didn’t want to race me. He probably didn’t even notice you. I then started thinking how stupid it was all going to sound when I went home to write it down.

Poor Places

I kept quiet as I continued driving. I decided it was finally time to go home. Every once and a while I would wonder if Mr. Red Car Douchebag was still following me, maybe keeping his distance. He wasn’t.

Reservations

I pulled in to my driveway as the last song comes on. I know this could be the dramatic finale I need to cap the story. Jeff Tweedy says so many beautiful things in this song that I know will give me so much to think about with love, desperation, and longing. I sat in my car for the first minute of the song but then I decided it was too much. I couldn’t contrive more out of this evening. You can’t force something to be organic. So I turned off my car.

I walked to the porch, turning the key carefully to not alarm my dogs who would in turn wake up my dad. I can’t remember, but they probably did end up barking. I made my way upstairs and climbed into bed and pulled out my laptop. I wrote down my ridiculous stream of consciousness and pressed publish, awaiting what my friends might say. At the moment I thought it was brilliant, but I suspected others wouldn’t think so. I also suspected I wouldn’t think so as time went on as well. Everything about this drive felt so important to me. The music felt important to me.

Three years later I’m still not sure it means something at all, but I can’t listen to this album without thinking about it.

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Previous Wax Story: Grand Ole Party – Humanimals

Next Week: The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism

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Wax Stories #2: Elliott Smith – “Either/Or”

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I know in my last post I said I was going to write about David Bazan’s “Curse Your Branches” next week, but this is still technically the same week and I promise I’ll get Bazan ready in the coming days. Given certain events in Seattle today, I thought this one would be a bit more appropriate and timely.

Discovering Elliott Smith always seems like a poignant moment for most people I’ve talked to who listen to him. For me, it felt like finally discovering that unknown artist you’d always wanted to find. In my fantasy it was usually finding an old tape or CD that had fallen off the rack and was covered with dust – long forgotten to anyone else. That’d be pretty romantic, huh? Instead, I found Elliott on MSN Messenger.

My buddy Nate and I started sharing music with each other when I was 15 and he was 14. I’m sure he’s going to come up a lot in this blog series; he helped shape a lot of stuff I listen to today. At the time, most of our friends weren’t listening to the same music as us. We were what would become the annoying hipster “you probably haven’t heard of it” cliche. We weren’t trying to be cool. We just liked different music than our peers. Pretty much every night after school we were on MSN Messenger talking about music, classes, or whatever else was going on. Periodically we would send each other MP3s of new music we were listening to. There used to be a feature on chat where you could see what the other person was listening to.

One summer evening when I was 16 I remember seeing it say Nate was listening to a song by Elliott Smith. I’d heard the name before. For a school project a couple years prior, I interviewed one of my all time favorite artists (Cinjun Tate of the band Remy Zero) and in one of the questions I asked him what his favorite album of all time was – he said “When I think of perfect albums, Elliott Smith’s ‘Either/Or’ comes to mind.” For whatever reason, I didn’t immediately go and pick up the record…idiot.

I was on a big singer-songwriter kick when I saw Nate’s music status and I got the impression Elliott Smith was probably along those lines. I asked Nate how Elliott is. He responded pretty ecstatically, singing Elliott’s praises. He sent me over a couple of tracks. The first one I can remember hearing was “Rose Parade.”

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The lightly strummed guitar chords with a simple three note lead played over it felt elating. Then Elliott comes in with his hush voice, telling a story about a trivial parade that slowly becomes more and more bitter as it goes along. It was unlike any songwriting I had been exposed to before. Something about being at such a happy event like a parade and critiquing it for all it’s fake pageantry felt so desperate and lonely to me – I’d later have many of these same feelings listening to the majority of his work.

I had Nate send me over the rest of “Either/Or.” I listened to it all night at the computer. I’m pretty sure, but not certain, that I intentionally listened to “2:45 A.M.” at 2:45 A.M. The album became a secret obsession. I’d spend down time fumbling through “Between The Bars” on guitar, smirk every time at the opening line to “Say Yes” (“I’m in love with the world, through the eyes of a girl who’s still around the morning after”), and burn copies of the album for friends who I thought might appreciate it. As I looked at my small record collection, I thought about how “Either/Or” would probably be the best sounding vinyl out there. I had my first “holy grail” record and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to find it in a junk bin at Great Prospects.

That spring Nate and I decided to go hang out in Seattle on a Saturday. We walked on a ferry over and checked out the Experience Music Project – spending most of our time messing around in the fake recording studio. They had a feature that would let you record for 10 minutes and then you could buy a CD copy to take home. We messed around with the guitars and played a partial version of “Rose Parade” (which I refuse to go back and listen to) and some silly songs I’d written.

Afterward we walked over to Easy Street Records in Lower Queen Anne. We dug through the crates, marveling at their impressive selection. In Kitsap County the closest thing to a music store that I was aware of was the electronics department of Fred Meyer. Being able to walk through these aisles and see stuff that I only thought existed on the Internet was amazing. I had been to both Easy Street locations before, but not since I had expanded my taste out of exclusively alternative rock radio.

Then I saw it. “Either/Or.” I could not believe it was actually there. I thought no one knew about him, let alone would take the time to stock his stuff in a record store. Shouldn’t this be covered with dust in a corner? It was amazing to final see the cover art as it was meant to be seen, and the stark back cover with the blurry, swaying chandelier.

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Nate and I marveled at it and kept repeating how good it was going to sound. I didn’t hesitate to buy it; I didn’t know if I’d ever get another chance. I took it home in my black plastic bag with the Easy Street logo and carried it with pride. I listened to the record repeatedly for months. I even held up the sleeve as a model as I tried to recreate the cover art in my sketchbook (which included the “fuck you” graffiti behind Elliott in the picture, because I was a total rebel).

Seven years later and this is still one of my favorite albums and vinyl records. I live in Seattle now and literally can walk down a few blocks to Sonic Boom where there’s always at least a few Elliott Smith albums in the bins and other bands I’m continuing to discover. It’s a convenience I love to exploit (my wallet is not so fond of it though). I’ve continued to fill my collection with records from Easy Street Records too. Sometimes I forget that it wasn’t that long ago when finding these records was a big deal for me.

Now today Easy Street Records in Queen Anne is closing its doors for good to be replaced by a Chase Bank. It may seem trivial to be saddened by the lose of a business, but to me and a lot of other music fans this a huge loss. I can’t find a treasure like “Either/Or” at a bank. I won’t have that same feeling of discovery and excitement when I go to cash a check or make a withdrawal. Every time I put “Either/Or” on my turntable now, I’m going to think about Easy Street and how it inadvertently encouraged my interest in music and brought me closer with artists like Elliott Smith. We’re really lucky here in Seattle. I hope we don’t take for granted that we have so much access to culture and art that helps us express ourselves; I hope we don’t ever favor chain stores and condos over priceless things like these.

Thanks Elliott. Thanks Easy Street. You’ve both given me and others some truly great music.

Here’s a video of Elliott Smith playing on a pilot for The Jon Brion show, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”):

Next week: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches (for REAL this time)

Previous Wax Story: U2 – War / INXS – Shabooh Shoobah

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry

Wax Stories #1: U2 – “War” / INXS – “Shabooh Shoobah”

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It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly drew me to vinyl records. The whole vinyl resurgence hadn’t really become a “thing” yet in 2005, at least not in Kitsap. Vaguely I recall my friend Amanda mentioning in passing that music sounds better on vinyl. I think there was just something cool and fascinating about vinyl. At the time I was really heavy into P2P Sharing platforms (ahem…pirating) like Kazaa and Limewire but still found way more satisfaction opening up a CD case and going through all the album artwork and notes. I was just beginning to fall in love with music at 15; buying records was the first step to a “full on relationship.”

My family has always loved going to junk shops and antique stores (Sorry Macklemore, I’m OG). I can recall going through furniture aisles with my mom, clothes and fabric sections with my grandmother, and sifting through every junk bin in the building with my grandfather. The fact that I found my first record player at a vintage mall wasn’t fate, it was just a matter of time. At Great Prospects in Port Orchard I spotted my future Technics SL-1900 a few weeks before purchasing it. I had seen a few record players around before that, but this was the first one that grabbed me. It was sleek – all black, modern looking. I assumed it was incredibly high quality just by its appearance. I worked out a deal with my mom that summer to exchange a few days of yard work for the turntable. After I did my part, she drove me over to Great Prospects. I worried it’d already be sold and we were too late, but I was in luck.

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I picked up the turntable and a pair of cheap $10 speakers (I only remember the price because I kept the highlighter pink tag on them for years) and headed toward the counter. Right near the register was a display of records. I figured it wouldn’t make much sense to have a player with nothing to play on it. I sifted through the bins, going through a lot of Christmas albums and Barbara Streisand Compilations, and looked for anything that I thought would sound good.

First I spotted U2’s War. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb had just came out in 2004 and was constantly in my CD player. I had just begun listening to their back catalog after some recommendations and history lessons about the band from my dad. I took out War and inspected the track list. Side A, Song 1: “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Sold. I loved that song and that was enough for me to justify buying it without knowing any of the other songs on the album.

I thought this was a solid enough purchase and almost called it quits on my first digging expedition until I saw INXS’ Shabooh Shoobah. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I was only familiar because my family was really into the “American Idol” rock-rip-off reality show “Rockstar: INXS.” The show featured the remaining members of the band seeking a new lead vocalist to replace the deceased Michael Hutchence. I thought this was the coolest show to ever be on t.v. Every week I could hear people sing not just INXS songs, but also other real rock songs with songs by real rock bands like Queen, Nirvana, and Creed (my tastes were still being developed – see my dissection of Chad Kroeger). Regardless, I had just started going through INXS’ discography as well and idolized them as “one of the few, great 80s groups.” I wasn’t really familiar with the songs on Shabooh Shoobah (I was mostly hoping to find “Kick”) but as the season finale was coming up in a few weeks, it only felt appropriate to pick this one up too.

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After making my decisions, we paid for my new gear at the register and headed home. It was summer and our house always would get blistering hot due to our lack of shade. My godfather Tony (who’ll likely come up a few times in this blog series) was living with us at the time as he tried to overcome his alcoholism. We set up my record player in the living room so I could learn how to use it. Tony got me paranoid about the records warping because of the heat and instructed me to keep them out of sunlight. I took note. I plugged in the record player, connected the speakers, and set War Side A on the mat and lifted the needle. I was ready to hear music in a way I never had before. Instead, I heard nothing. My mom and Tony laughed – we had forgotten that we needed a pre-amp for this to work. I put my ear close to the needle on the wax and faintly I could here the snare lead in of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” It was quiet, but it was there.

We went back to Great Prospects and picked up a cheap pre-amp and I got myself set up in my room. Late that night, when I would usually be on the computer chatting with my friends or writing back and forth with my Internet friends on message boards, I stayed in my room and played each record back-to-back till 3 a.m. I played it quietly because my parents were sleeping in their room and Tony’s room was right next to mine. Even though one of the speakers kept cutting out and the volume was so low that there was probably not discernible difference from my mp3s, I swore it sounded so much better than anything I’d ever heard before.

I favored “Seconds” and “New Year’s Day” on War most of the night, as I followed the lyrics over and over again in the gate fold. The burn marks and bent edges of the cover made me wonder who had it before me and if they had been a big U2 fan like I was. I’d eventually quote “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in a fake presidential speech for class the next school year, only to have a senior guy remind me it was an Irish protest song and not about American policies (that was the day I decided to never go into politics). “Don’t Change” on Shabooh Shoobah slowly became one of my favorite songs of all time (especially after my favorite contestant on “Rockstar: INXS” sang it, but later I appreciated it more for its composition and mantra). I still spin these records every now and again, though much more rarely as my collection has expanded. As far as beginnings go, these two were a wonderful start to something that would carry on with me for longer than I expected.

Next Week: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

Wondering what “Wax Stories” is all about? Read my introduction post.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry

Won’t Let Go

Photo by Dorothy Hyunh (http://www.dorothyhuynh.com/)

This post was written on August 14, around midnight, and published August 16.

I’ve avoided writing a blog about marriage or “life as an engaged person” post for a while. Most of the reason lies behind thinking that a lot of the posts I read like this are cheesy and (perhaps ashamedly) Kristin and I have both laughed at how strange some of them are (just kidding, no shame – they’re hilarious). So maybe I’ll end up in that “strangely comical lubby dubby blogger” realm if just for this post.

Right now I’m sitting alone in the apartment Kristin and I will share as our first home as a family. The living room is completely empty. I have two plates, two glasses, a bowl, and one of each type of silverware. My belongings, mostly clothes and records, are all collected in the bedroom. I haven’t really organized anything; I’m waiting until Kristin moves in so we can set things up together and make it our place.

It’s a surreal feeling, living like this. It’s peaceful and yet jarring. Everything feels like the calm before a storm, but instead of a storm it’s a whole new life waiting on the other side. When I can’t quite comprehend what I’m feeling and struggle to keep my thoughts straight I typically turn to music that I think captures it better than I think I’m able to.

I first heard “Won’t Let Go” when David Bazan played a snippet of it at The Triple Door during “The Song Show,” a series where CityArts interviews artists on stage between songs. Bazan’s been urged for a while now to write a conventional love song that doesn’t involve some sort of twisted scenario (not a lot of people bought his reasoning that “Please Baby Please” was a love song, a song where the narrator drunkenly pleads with his wife for a drink and later their daughter dies in a car accident – basically our generations “I Only Have Eyes For You”). Hearing just that little bit two years ago, I knew it was breathtaking. I thought the same thing when it was finally released on his album last year. But I don’t think I really “got it” until tonight.

As I work on the favors for our wedding, I have this song on repeat. The distant drums, the ethereal guitar twang, and Bazan’s aged soft growl are constantly buzzing in my ears. I can’t stop listening; I feel comforted. Basically in the song Bazan is calling his wife before getting on a plane, explaining that when she gets this message he’ll be on a plane thinking about her and his responsibilities to her – and that he won’t let go of her.

The premises sounds more like a Billy Joel, Peter Frampton, or, heck, even a Bruno Mars song – some generic safe musician. But it’s all about the execution of the story and who is telling it. The track bookends an album that starts with a chorus of “You’re a goddamn fool and I love you” and later details how we as people have lost our humanity. Not exactly “Baby I Love Your Way” now is it? Bazan’s had a rough road with faith that he’s shared publicly through his music and has also publicly mentioned its strain on his relationship with his family in interviews. To Bazan, this isn’t throw away napkin poetry but a thoughtful declaration.

“Who or what controls the fates of men I cannot say, but I keep arriving safely home to you. I humbly acknowledge that I won’t always get my way, but darling death would have to pry my fingers loose.”

What does it mean to love someone that you would literally fight off death, not for your own sake, but to not leave them alone? Darwin told us the animal kingdom is all about survival of the fittest, animals fighting for dominance and doing whatever it takes to get it. Bazan tells us his wife is worth more than pure alpha supremacy. What a novel concept, aye? This probably seems obvious and stupid but I think he touches at something even deeper – love is going against your human nature to give up everything for someone else. That’s beautiful.

It’s not just about avoiding death, it’s about allowing nothing to keep you from the one you love whether it is metaphysical or otherwise.  That’s an easy statement to make but a harder one to fully grasp – let alone follow through with.

In the over three years Kristin and I have been together, I’ve become closer to her than anyone in my life. In those years I’ve learned really for the first time what it means to sacrifice for someone you love. Not just little sacrifices, but knowing your capacity to do whatever you can to make sure they are safe and content. I can probably think of small things I’ve done for friends and family throughout my life that may constitute as “sacrifices,” but they’re not quite the same. Getting to this point has been the hardest thing I think I’ve done. There has been that pain in my stomach when I’ve felt like I cannot do enough only to gain the strength to move forward. I mean a physical hurt. There’s an actual ache when you want to raise someone up but you’re not sure how. And when you figure it out, it’s so much joy – not joy for your benefit but joy for the other person.

Of course, there is much more than just these aspects that go into love, but right now these are the specific ones on my mind. I’d need a novel to explore that, not a blog post.

I love Kristin more than I did the first time I told her I loved her. In twenty years I’m sure I’ll look back and say that I love her more than I did when I said it on my wedding day. Having a responsibility like this to someone else is challenging but the reward is tenfold. I cannot and will not let go of her, I could never afford to do that. Bazan and I could tag team beating the of shit out death because it’d take far more than that for me to stop trying – it’s impossible.

“I will not let go. I will not let go. I will not let go of you.”