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Words and guitar: a few thoughts on falling in love with music all over again

When I walked into the Showbox at the Market on Friday night to see The Corin Tucker Band, it was a bit of a homecoming. The first time I was in the Showbox (as it was called then) was December 14, 2001. I don’t have that date etched in my memory but Google makes finding it easy. Approaching nine years ago, I don’t remember much of that night but there are also a lot of things I won’t ever forget.

That night was when I went to see Sleater-Kinney, the band Tucker played guitar in and sang for until their hiatus in 2006. They were playing two nights, a Friday and Saturday, and I chose the Friday night show because their opener, Pretty Girls Make Graves had what I thought was a cooler name than Saturday’s: Tracy + The Plastics (I eventually became very fond of both). I had never seen live music in a rock club before and had only seen bigger bands I liked from the radio/MTV at that time and before I knew better; Hootie and the Blowfish at the Tacoma Dome, Dave Matthews Band at Key Arena? Check and check.

This was different, though, I took the night off from my shitty job in a fast food restaurant in Everett, mostly responding to an ad or story in The Stranger. I chose that show because I remembered reading that Time magazine called SK “the best band in America” and I wanted to see that for myself. I had bought what was their current album at the time, All Hands on the Bad One, and liked it a bit, but never fully listened to it much before seeing the band play those songs live. “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun” was my favorite song from that album.

When the three ladies in Sleater-Kinney – Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss – came on stage for the first time, it was to set up their own gear; I had never seen a band do that before. The energy that they gave off in what was then the smallest place I had ever seen music was remarkable. Music was always comforting to me, but here the power of it washed over me. I was blown away. I was almost 23 and being in a rock club was where I found comfort. I could hide behind my awkwardness with drinks and god only knows how many decibels of reverb. Being an introvert who spent most of his late teen years as a terrible stutter, I felt strangely comfortable being in a place with 1,200 people I literally didn’t know because when the music is that loud, no one can hear you stutter.

The feeling of content in a place where I knew no one while simultaneously being blown away was overwhelming. Going in to the Showbox that night, Sleater-Kinney was not my favorite band in the entire world, but leaving it a few hours later – and every subsequent day since – they were. One of their songs, “I Wanna Be Yr. Joey Ramone,” has a line that goes “it’s on my wall, in my head, memorize it ‘till I’m dead.” That was my new ethos with this band.

Sleater-Kinney is a pure rock and roll band. They exude a visceral energy with the force of Brownstein’s guitar, Weiss’ drumming and (maybe especially) Tucker’s fiercely intense vocals. Yet the chemistry and energy that comes from their music, especially how Brownstein’s and Tucker’s guitar parts complement one another, made for one of the most intelligent bands in music that I was aware of at the time. I’d like to pretend it was irrelevant that they were women but I was drawn more to female musicians and believed women as a whole made better music than their male counterparts and Sleater-Kinney was, to me, the jury coming back and confirming what I always believed.

Sleater-Kinney released seven LPs, all on independent, Northwest labels (Chainsaw, Kill Rock Stars and Sub Pop). They frequently spoke about never wanting to sign with a major label, so if Sleater-Kinney were labeled as “indie rock,” that was the music I listened to and identified with.

I knew that night that my life was changed, but I didn’t envision what would follow. The friends I would make, the shows I would go to, the fun I would have.

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When I write about music, I try to do so dispassionately. I know that how we interact with music is personal and to expect someone to have transcendental experiences with the same exact music is expecting a lot and only leads to disappointment. Moreover, those life-affirming experiences were, for me at least, few and far between. They still were there but they were infrequent (the first time I saw The White Stripes at the Moore Theater and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings at Neumos are particularly memorable). I became a writer, somewhat indirectly, to turn people on to music I like; if I made the content of someone’s iPod a little better, it makes it worthwhile.

When I’m introduced as a music writer, the question of your favorite band is asked early in conversations. If someone doesn’t share then enthusiasm I have for Sleater-Kinney, it has been followed a few times by an apology. When someone apologizes for not liking Sleater-Kinney, I treat it as if someone just told me that they have to wear socks while having sex: I don’t really care because it doesn’t affect me and, hey, if that’s what gives them pleasure, good for them. I sometimes wish that knife would cut the opposite direction so that people I meet realize that asking me to give a damn about Radiohead is asking a lot, but mostly I enjoy the conversations about music and only want them to be honest.

Somewhere in 2006, when Sleater-Kinney announced they were taking a hiatus, I was stunned but understood that not every good thing could last perpetually. Their last album, The Woods, marked a lot of changes for the band: they moved from Kill Rock Stars to Sub Pop and the sound was much heavier. It was a challenging record to listen to (though a rewarding one) and I frequently read interviews of ways that the band (and producer Dave Fridmann) pushed each other to get the most raw and intense sound that they’ve ever produced.

It was widely believed that the band took their hiatus so that Tucker could tend to her family, specifically her two young children.

The final shows they played where in August of 2006 at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. I bought a ticket to the first show, a Friday night, before it quickly sold out and another show was added the next night. I rode down there with a friend from work, knowing I would likely be saying goodbye to a band that had, almost directly, sent me down this path.

I couldn’t get a ticket for the second show because I was beginning a new job the next Sunday, very early in the morning. I thought it marked a turning point in my life. I took a job working for a large corporation (where I had been contracting for over a year prior). I started to identify less and less with indie rock once Sleater-Kinney played their final shows, which seemed more of an ideology than a genre to me. The music that seemed to be hegemonic in indie rock: Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Death Cab for Cutie (though not indie rock by definition any longer) were of little interest to me.They gained traction with pretty harmonies and a sincere, emotional connection with their audience. While there are a few songs that have made me cry (Harry Chapin’s “Cat in the Cradle” and Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run,” for different reasons, obviously), I listen to music because I like to figure out why they fit together and work.

In my post-Sleater-Kinney, working for the man life, I started to drift towards liking pop music. Not pop in the sense of The New Pornographers or Camera Obscura, ie, indie rock with hooks (though I admire both an awful lot), but the bubblegum, teen pop you hear on the radio. It wasn’t a huge jump because I was also listening to the indie-approved pop music – Annie, Robyn, Justin Timberlake and what a coup it was for me when Pitchfork gave their blessing to “Toxic”!

I thought for a long time that I was moving away from my rock and/or roll heroines by liking music that is slick, produced and oh so catchy until I recently realized that it was the intellectual side that of pop music that appealed to me. I never thought the best use of my limited budget was to help Katy Perry get richer but it is a joy to listen to how a pop producer like Dr. Luke gets a chorus to transition into the bridge or whatever. It was similar to me to listening to Sleater-Kinney and hearing how Brownstein and Tucker’s guitar parts work with Weiss’ drum fills.

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Last Thursday, the day before seeing The Corin Tucker Band play the songs from their brand new album, 1000 Years, I sat on my therapist’s couch talking about my latest flirtation with giving up writing for good. I was overwhelmed one day the week before with something difficult a publicist put me through while thinking of how I was again passed over for a paid writing opportunity I really wanted. A few days earlier, I had written a long piece on an event and when I sent the link to the organizers, one had basically written back saying “thanks for taking the time to talk with us, but you made an awful lot of typos.” At that point, the late Tuesday nights out at shows and early Wednesday mornings seemed less appealing to me, but I knew I couldn’t quit. “This is what makes me feel cool,” I told my therapist and it is. Being a music writer has opened me up to an amazing world that I didn’t ever envision and I have met lots of amazing people from it.

The Showbox at the Market was where I had seen half of the twelve Sleater-Kinney shows I had been to and it would be where, after four years, where I would first see a member of SK on stage. I had been in that room likely hundreds of times since seeing plenty of memorable shows (Soundgarden’s first show back from their hiatus, for example). There likely isn’t a bartender there who hasn’t poured me a vodka and cranberry juice or a bouncer that hasn’t checked my ID, so I wasn’t expecting Friday night’s show to be any different. I knew, though, that once I walked through the door, I couldn’t write a simple show review because I couldn’t write objectively, as I have no problem doing so with almost anyone else.

Opening for The Corin Tucker Band was The Redwood Plan, a Seattle dance-punk band fronted by Lesli Wood, who became my friend many, many years ago when she was the leader of a neo-riot grrrl band called Ms. Led that clearly found inspiration in Sleater-Kinney as well. I had seen a handful of other friends who were some of the first friends I made from going to shows. I also saw a lot of faces I remembered from the dozen SK shows I’ve been to but didn’t know.

Tucker and her band (which had at least four people on stage, usually more) came on stage at 10:45 to a small crowd by the Showbox’s standard. Before her encore, she played all of the songs from 1,000 Years and sounded great. I was bearish on the album, thinking it’s a nice album that only infrequently showcases her unparalleled vocals. I don’t think I unfairly compared it to the SK albums I loved, it’s more personal (which was hinted at on the sixth SK album, One Beat), intimate and comfortable. I don’t dislike it but it doesn’t push the same buttons that SK’s albums did for me and seems less remarkable in contrast. Yet her quiet stage presence held the crowd’s attention throughout her hour-long set.

The encore included three covers, the first was John Doe’s “The Golden State,” which was joined by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (who has been a big SK supporter, taking the band on tour with Pearl Jam and even opening during their final show). They followed with Au Pair’s “It’s Obvious” and finished with Sheila E’s “The Glamorous Life.” I don’t write about myself often as I generally believe that the journey is less important (to readers) than the destination but here I found it impossible to separate myself from the music. Plus, it’s always nice to be reminded not only of what you fell in love with years and years ago, but why you did in the first place.

{Photo by John Clark.}

Chris

Chris Burlingame is the editor of Another Rainy Saturday.