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 #4: Grand Ole Party – Humanimals

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If you’re not familiar with Grand Ole Party or Humanimals, don’t worry – I’m not either. I’m not sure if I’ve even listened to this record all the way through and haven’t spun it in years. That makes the circumstances that led me to this record all the more absurd and bizarre.

My senior year of high school one of best friends Brandon’s sister backed up into my car in their driveway, crushing the fender. She felt terrible, but everyone was cool with it and we worked it out. Her parents paid for the repairs and in the meantime let me drive her car while mine was in the shop (they had a lot of cars, so it wasn’t a big deal). This was sort of like winning the lottery of car accidents. Instead of driving around my old car with peeling paint, I got to drive a brand new blue Volvo sports car for over a month. Our buddy Austin joked the whole time wishing his car had got hit instead.

My Nissan 300Z was older and was really the only car I’d ever driven much. I loved that car, but it doesn’t handle anything like a new car does. Turns were easier, the sound system was clear, and the acceleration was effortless. For an 18 year old guy, this felt amazing. There’s some weird fascination with driving in high school. You get obsessed with speed – even if you’re not a speed demon or care about cars at all – you just feel this power that’s been withheld from you for so long. But with this Volvo, I didn’t have to try and go fast. It just happened so naturally I didn’t even realize it was happening.

As I was driving back to school from a doctor’s appointment, just a few days after getting the Volvo, and I felt great. The sun was shining, the roads were open, and I had R.E.M.’s “Man On The Moon” playing in the stereo (a very underrated “lets f*** shit up” song…well actually,no. No it’s not). I was so entranced in my little Andy Kaufman pipe-dream that I didn’t notice the speedometer going up. And that’s when I saw the cop on the side of the highway. I tried to put on my breaks to slow down but it was too late. He turned on his lights and I pulled over. He told me he clocked me in at 80 mph and asked for my license, registration, and proof of insurance. I reached toward the glove box and opened it only to have a bottle of prescription pills fall out. It wasn’t anything weird or illegal, but I didn’t know they were there. I freaked out. This wasn’t helping my case at all.

“I..uhhh…this is my friend’s ehhhh sisters car….I uhh am supposed to be on the uhhh insurance…I think,” I said.

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said. I’m not sure why though. This seemed like a pretty suspicious situation to me.

He gave me a speeding ticket and I went back to school, feeling defeated. I called Brandon’s dad from the student parking lot and pleaded apologies – mentioning repeatedly how I had betrayed his trust and how guilty I felt and how it would not happen again. I think he mostly thought it was funny and assured me I had nothing to worry about. I’m still thankful for how cool he was about it. My parents, on the other hand, were a bit livid. A classmate told that I should get the ticketed deferred, something you can do only once every seven years in Washington state to have the ticket scrapped off your record, and then pay off the fine with volunteer hours. This was going to be the most effective way for me to pay for it, so I went ahead with it.

Later that year I did a senior project job shadow at The Vera Project, following their stage managers for a few days and reporting on it. I fell in love with the venue through the process and everything they stood for. Sometime after I realized The Vera was a non-profit and qualified for my volunteer hours to pay off my fine. Well, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I emailed The Vera and they mentioned they needed some volunteers to work at their booth at Capitol Hill Block Party. I’d never been but decided to sign up for both days.

It was a pretty incredible way to pay off a ticket. I’d sit at a booth and hand out buttons and stickers for an hour or two then would go prowl the other stages with my friend Nate before going back to work again. I got to see Vampire Weekend and Chromeo while checking out some new bands as well. Having learned my lesson from the first day, I brought a backpack full of water bottles to keep hydrated during the sweltering heat. It probably wasn’t the most “green” option, but I wasn’t too concerned with that at the time.

That night during my shift, I was asked to run the merch table for the bands while they played. Primarily, for a band called Grand Ole Party. I had no idea who they were and it didn’t seem like many other people did either. From what I recall, they played a decent alternative rock set that reminded me a lot of Pretty Girls Make Graves. I thought it was pretty good, but others thought it was amazing. Their crowd grow more and more as the set progressed. About halfway through the set, a swarm of people started to come over to the merch table. At first it was just a few CDs, but by the end of their set I had sold the band’s entire stock. People were shoving money in my face and I struggled to keep track who was handing me what and tried to quickly calculate how much I owed them while making change with other customers.

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After the CDs were gone I told people we only had vinyl copies. A few people complained that they didn’t even have a record player, but somehow I said the right words to convince them to buy it anyway. Once it died down the band came over to take over. When I told them I sold all of their CDs and all but two of their vinyl records, they were floored. Their elation was infectious. I felt really happy for them. Even if I wasn’t totally sold on their music, this seemed like a big deal for them and I was happy I could be a part of it. They were so thrilled that they offered me one of the records for free. I wasn’t sure if it was totally ethical to accept a gift while volunteering, but I took it anyway.

I sat at the booth for a little bit doing some merch for Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head but was shortly after relieved of duties. I had the stage manager sign off on my volunteer time sheet and rushed over to the main stage to see DeVotchKa. I’d lost track of Nate at this point – he met up with some other friends while he was there. But it didn’t matter. I was just so excited to see DeVotchKa play that I didn’t care if I was going to see them alone or not. I sneaked my way near the front on the right side of the stage. As the set picked up, everything turned into a giant dance party. I don’t usually dance unless I’m being goofy with friends, but this night was an exception. I did my stiff, white boy sway to the tunes of “We’re Leaving” as a group of drunk people bounced around near me. Things got rowdier and turned into a joyful, dance mosh. Someone bumped into me and my Grand Ole Party record flew out of my hands and onto the ground. I was sure it was gone forever. I had to wait an entire song before I could look for it. I spotted it near the end of the song and watched as people jumped up and down repeatedly on it. I picked it up and prayed it wasn’t broken but I couldn’t check yet.

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To my left, a man kept trying to dance with this girl. She would refuse and then a few minutes later he’d be back trying to bump and grind. She’d refuse again and the cycle repeated. He did this three or four times. Finally she took off her flip-flop and proceeded to hit him over the head with it. This was not a playful tap with her shoe; this was full on Mortal Kombat fatality intensity. She yelled “I TOLD YOU AGAIN AND AGAIN I DON’T WANT TO DANCE WITH YOU.” We all applauded. I felt a sense of camaraderie with the group.

I walked with Nate and his friends after the set down to the ferry. We were all jazzed about DeVotchKa’s show. We split ways at the terminal as they caught the Bambridge Ferry and I got on the Bremerton Ferry. I opened the record in my booth to see if it was shattered. To my surprise, it looked flawless. I opened my backpack and pulled out my last water bottle. I already had to use the bathroom, but I came up with a grand plan. I was getting really tired and I still had to drive home once I got off the ferry. I also getting really hyped up when I reallllly have to use the bathroom and I already felt the urge coming on. If I drank this last bottle of water, then that would likely give me enough energy to make it home.

Well, it did work.

In the car (my own car, not the Volvo at this point) I felt like I was on speed. I played Jeff Buckley’s “Eternal Life” on repeat and frantically yelled along with it as I squirmed and jostled in my driver’s seat. I felt like I made record time getting home. I walked through the door at three in the morning, my dad asleep on the couch, and clutching my new record. I felt satisfied with a weekend of music and helping a band get their music out there to people, if even in a small way. But mostly, I just really had to pee.

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Previous Wax Story: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

Next Week: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

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Wax Stories #3: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

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Sophomore year of college seems to be the “existential crisis” year for most people I know. Freshman year is all about meeting new people, having new experiences, and having the misplaced sense of independence (“I’m an adult now. I don’t live at home. I live in a dorm that my parents pay for and use a meal plan that my parents also pay for”). After the hype of college life dies down, it’s time to process all these new ideas and worldviews that have been stewing over the past year. If anything, I found this to be true for me.

I get a bit nervous writing about faith and thoughts on religion on my blog; I fear what impression it may give people and put everything into some weird, pigeonholed context. However, I feel this album is a good outlet to talk about it. If anything Curse Your Branches has helped me move on from closed mindedness and in to something else that I’m still trying to figure out.

At the end of freshman year, David Bazan – still newly solo after the break-up of Pedro The Lion – played on my campus in association with our campus radio station KSPU. I’d been listening to Bazan and Pedro The Lion since high school per suggestion of my friend Nate. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard Bazan play, but I was intrigued at the idea of him playing on a Christian college campus. Pedro the Lion was often mislabeled as a Christian band, but at this point it was becoming prevalent that Bazan was no longer a believer. I remember feeling secretly guilty singing along to  “Cold Beer & Cigarettes” from his solo EP Fewer Moving Parts in high school, which featured the Bazan husky voice belting “what a cruel God we got” and references to vaginas and sexual deviancy. I was surprised Seattle Pacific University would even allow something like that presented under their banner.

Bazan stood on the stage with only a guitar and a light projection of broken glass behind him. He opened with a song that at the time was titled “Graduation Day.” Opening with a new song is a bit unusual, but I studied the lyrics as he sang. Primarily it questioned the biblical creation narrative, but it was the last verse that felt painfully relevant to the room:

So I swung my tassel
To the left side of my cap
Knowing after graduation
There would be no going back

And no congratulations
From my faithful family
Some of whom are already fasting
To intercede for me

It felt a bit heavy handed to me in the moment, but it was the first time listening to Bazan that I got the impression he had a statement he wanted people to know. If that were true, he definitely got my hooked.

That summer, in 2009, I went to Alaska with my buddies Zach and John to work at a helicopter tour company. After spending a year in the dorms feigning self-sufficiency, I got what it really meant to grind out 50 hour work-weeks and have most of your paycheck go to rent and bills. Being away from most people I know gave me time to think and absorb challenges I had to my worldview in the last year, among other things (future Wax Stories referencing Alaska are sure to come). At night when I would read on the couch, I’d put Pedro the Lion’s discography on shuffle through my laptop speakers. I’m pretty sure Zach and John were pretty sick of hearing it all the time, but it gave me a chance to really listen to what Bazan was saying on those Pedro the Lion albums and try and use them to decipher my experience hearing him at SPU.

Bazan released an acoustic version of “Please Baby Please” earlier that year that I listened to obsessively. But when I found “Hard to Be” (formerly titled “Graduation Day”) streaming on Last.FM when I got back from Alaska, I knew this album was going to take things further than he had with Pedro the Lion. I knew it was something I needed to hear.

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And now it’s hard to be
Hard to be
Hard to be a decent human being

Curse Your Branches is the first album I can recall ever pre-ordering. I had it shipped to my new dorm, which I was living in alone for a few weeks before school started. My stereo was damaged during move-in, so it would be a while before I could actually listen to the vinyl, but I immediately pulled out the download code from the packaging and listened through my laptop.

I’d been going to Christian schools since I was 13. That doesn’t make me a theologian by any means, but gave me a decidedly evangelical perspective on things. I don’t want to completely disown my education – I feel like I did learn a lot of valuable philosophies and concepts, but I was really only seeing one side of a controversial and often upsetting story. Of course I had questions and issues with things that came up in the Bible, but everyone I was surrounded by was so sure that all of it was true and said they could cite exact scientific and moral reasons why. Everything could be explained through tactful apologetics. So any doubts I had, I repressed. Not specifically because anyone told me not to question, but because I personally felt it was inappropriate. So when “Hard to Be” opens Curse Your Branches, Bazan is bringing out all these questions I’d been denying myself all these years. It was heartbreaking, but at the same time intoxicating. It made me sad for him while feeling relief that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

The album then goes into a borderline parody of the Parable of the Weeds from the Book of Matthew on “Bless This Mess”, then a parable of Bazan’s own with “Please Baby Please,” and then to the title track “Curse Your Branches.” This is the one of all the tracks that will stick with me the most.

Red and orange, or red and yellow
In which of these do you believe?
If you’re not sure right now,
Please take a moment
I need your signature before you leave

How are we supposed to be so sure on what is the right religion or mode of thought when we have so little to go off and so little (relative) time to decide?

All falling leaves should curse their branches
For not letting them decide where they should fall
And not letting them refuse to fall at all

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These lyrics completely wrecked me. Every paper for a theology class that required some sort of faith statement would from then on have a burned copy of Curse Your Branches attached to them. The questions on this album sparked conversations with friends who were feeling the same things and with artists I’d interview for the paper. It prompted me to debate with my professors in class and call out things I thought were bullshit. To my surprise, sometimes they’d even agree with me. I’d spend late nights, when I should’ve been studying, reading lengthy interviews with Bazan talking about his lose of faith and reading the Bible with his daughter. There was so much I wanted to talk about with him. I wanted to hear it from him. I did this for years, and still sort of do today. I’ve realized he’s not the only one asking these questions, but he has become a figurehead to me for all the doubters.

Through all this though, I never have forsake my beliefs totally. I’ve really tried to rationalize myself out of it, but I can’t. There’s still something there. I can’t explain it and that’s really frustrating. I know I sound really ignorant and I don’t really know what to say to people who call me out on it. But this album changed how I view Christianity. It’s not as black and white for me anymore. It’s not something I can shout out some facts I read on an online form and claim I won. I’m not so much interested in debating anymore. I’m more interested in respecting people for who they are and accepting the same respect in return. I’m not going to stop looking for answers and questioning the weird things that are bound to come up.


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When I finally got the chance to interview Bazan a few month ago, I didn’t prepare the questions I would have in 2009. Just as I began to realize I am more than whatever views I’m struggling with right now, so is he. The subject was touched upon a bit, but mainly to help tell his story. When I spin Curse Your Branches today, the questions he brings up are still unanswered. I don’t know if they ever will be, but I feel like I’m in a better place for it. Bazan and I haven’t had the same realization exactly. I don’t think two people ever will. I just hope we can learn to accept that without taking offense.

And why are some hellbent upon there being an answer
While some are quite content to answer I don’t know?

Next week: Grand Ole Party – Humanimals

Previous Wax Story: Elliott Smith – Either/Or

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