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).

Kamera

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

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