Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Eighties on the Brain

My second day's helping of oral steroids have brought me to the point of massive insomnia, so I might as well write. . .

I've been going through a pretty intense 80s revival of late, though one largely confined to music. It started when I realized that I actually did like Interpol's first album a lot, picked up speed with my subsequent reevaluation of the NYC scene, in which I learned to love The Rapture, for example, and reached critical mass when I decided it was alright to indulge in the guilty pleasure of The Killers.

After a break for the holidays, the revival has kicked in with a vengeance, fueled by A) the inspiration of Ozric's wonderfully cryptic communications; B) Kim's own look backward to the period, the result of a return to her "Kim Dot" identity amplified by correspondence from long-out-of-touch intimates from her Bronze Seal days; and C) my desire to burn songsiheard CDs that were simultaneously great and hard to get, which led me to rediscover Game Theory.

Now that my opportunities to write about new music have disappeared, thanks to the previously mentioned collapse of my Punk Planet and New Times outlets, I'm also going through a period of retrenchment, in which I make less effort to learn about new music and instead try to fill in blanks in my collection. When I realized how hard it was to acquire Game Theory CDs, for example, I made a beeline to CD City to pick up some of those used and cheap Thin White Rope CDs that had been sitting in the store for ages.

Thin White Rope is one of those acts I just missed. I read enough music criticism as an undergrad to know that I should check them out. I even planned to see them give a performance on Lower Sproul, though I ended up not going. Somehow there were always other priorities. I heard a few of their songs here and there and played their cover of The Byrds' "Everybody Has Been Burned" to death. But they eventually slipped from my collector's radar.

Researching Game Theory after songsiheard's brief visit, I discovered that the band actually started in Sacramento and were considered loose affiliates of other so-called "Paisley Underground" acts like Dream Syndicate and Thin White Rope. Unlike the L.A. bands I'd previously associated with that moniker, however, Thin White Rope came from Davis, just outside Sacramento, as did Dream Syndicate's Kendra Smith and Steve Wynn. This got me thinking about the strange fertility of the Sacramento-Stockton corridor -- Pavement, of course, but also Chris Issak, DJ Shadow, Paris, Cake -- and the way in which the Greater Bay Area tends to eventually claim that corridor's products as its own. It's a strange kind of cultural imperialism, given the traditional animus directed at the "bridge-and-tunnel" crowd. But suburbia has long been the real source of middle-class innovation for many Americans. It's just that the margins of suburbia have been pushed so far back that the in-between-land's aegis now encompasses all sorts of former stand-alone communities in California, big and small, from Steven's Antioch, to our former home of Vallejo, to the depressing vale of Tracy. I suppose that if a place is within reasonable concert-driving distance, as San José and Sacramento were for us in Vallejo and as San Francisco and Berkeley are for people in the middle Central Valley, then it sort of counts as part of the same musical landscape, however broadly understood.

Anyway, I listened to Thin White Rope's last album tonight while cleaning the kitchen floor and enjoyed it a lot. I also liked their first one, that I played the other day in the car. I understand now that the appeal of Tucson's Giant Sand for me has a lot do with the way Howe Gelb has never lost his 80s-style college radio eccentricity. Thin White Rope seems to possess the same refusal to play by any one set of rules. Something similar, of course, is one of the principal reasons why I love Pavement, particularly in relation to supposedly similar bands. They go all over the place without apology. Could it be the influence -- not only of Echo and the Bunnymen, whom they covered, or The Cure, whom they ripped off for "Gold Soundz," or The Dream Syndicate, supposedly the inspiration for "Range Life"'s attack on The Smashing Pumpkins -- but of less known but more local acts like Game Theory and Thin White Rope? It seems likely.

My second pick was the Mission of Burma comeback album ONoffON, which I'd only heard selections from previously. I bought it used along with the Thin White Rope records, figuring it was time to absorb the whole record. It's really, really good. Somehow, though, I can't shake my classificatory anxiety concerning it. Try as I might, I've never been able to listen to a comeback album without having a slow throb in the back of my brain telling me over and over that it's "a comeback album." The closest I've come to dulling the throb was with the Buzzcocks' fine Trade Test Transmissions, which I have played regularly over the years despite its problematic provenance. This Mission of Burma record, however, puts me in a quandry. I actually think it might be better than the band's two studio albums of the early 1980s. That may just be an illusion generated by the fact that it is so much better produced, with vocals up in the mix instead of sinking into the mud. Still, I'm pretty sure that it will measure up to their back catalog after repeated listenings.

But what does that mean, exactly? ONoffON sounds awesome, but it also sounds like a product of the early 80s. Because we live at a time when the alternative music scene is flooded with early 80s-esque records by artists who were babies in the early 80s, however, the sense of nostalgia I get listening to the Mission of Burma record is complicated. Is their record more authentic because they're doing now what they were doing back then? Or does it, rather, fall into the same category as Interpol et. al.?

While mopping the floor, I thought of an analogy: "Listening to ONoffOn is like having sex with an ex-lover after many years. It's hard to tell which sensations are of the moment and which derive from memory." I think it's a compelling analogy. Then again, I've never had sex with an ex-lover, unless you count an abortive attempt to help my only ex come -- her current partner was not particularly interested in sex -- that occurred a month after we'd broken up and a month before I met Kim. And, to be honest, I have a hard time even imagining what sex with that ex would be like now. Yet I don't seem to have any trouble imagining having sex with Mission of Burma. . .

Somewhere in this tangle of prose there is a silence that I should probe. I'm sure The Cure is one of the "sticking points" -- I prefer that term to the translation of Jacques Lacan that calls them "quilting points," which means the same thing but loses the English idiom -- that binds that silence. I know my year in Germany is also connected to it. And the trauma of high school lurks as well. For tonight, though, I'm going to let the silence sit, like a massy blackness against a less-dark midnight sky, because I've written my way out of extreme steroid-induced tension and just realized that a bowl of my semi-homemade Asian chicken soup will probably calm me down further. Please accept my apologies for rambling without purpose or plan. It's the drugs, man.

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