February 23, 2010
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 2002, the melancholy mood of the year, exemplified in the album releases by Beck, Wilco, and the Flaming Lips (with a healthy dose of Brook’s own nostalgia thrown in, as he set off for the Big Apple to pursue his personal musical ambitions). For earlier installments, go here.
On September 1, 2002, I made good on my as-long-as-I-can-remember dream of leaving Michigan for New York City. Like senior year of high school, (and the subsequent summer) those final Midwest summer days crawled by, like sweet tea tectonic plates. I worked something like ninety hours a week, “saving” money—but really spending most of it on crazy record store finds, things only I could care about—like the Meat Purveyors’ “Madonna Trilogy.” A big part of my problem has always been that no one around me can match my enthusiasm for miniscule little records by cheeky, insurgent bluegrass bands (and, in fairness, I’ve come to realize that a bigger part of my problem is that I care less about the music than I do about the acquisition). I have long had a reputation for only caring about music, which until recently felt like a character flaw, something to be pilloried for. Unhealthy obsession with those twelve notes and the multitude of possibilities within has permeated every aspect of my life for as long as I can remember, and acquisition of music (and arcane knowledge of its minutiae) has taken precedence over friendships, food, shelter, education, you name it. The list goes on.
Indeed, the last thing I did as a Michigander was to serve as the “later” wedding band at my friends’ Mike and Kristy’s wedding. It was an unconventional wedding, to be sure: Mike is the treasurer for the Socialist Party of Michigan. Kristy’s into Party politics, but has never been as fervent. Kristy’s family is Catholic. Mike’s an Atheist. To please the family, Mike rolled his eyes through a bunch of…acclimation…classes. Both are Irish. There’s a thick streak of, “Fuck tradition, let’s put all this stuff we like together,” in pretty much everything that happens in Michigan: the Coney Dog was invented in Flint, and the MC5 mixed extreme leftist politics with an un-shakeable call to wiggle your ass. Proudly blue collar, and predominantly Christian (at least until the last ten years), Michigan has had a Republican governor for as long as I can remember, but nevertheless has gone Democrat in the last five Presidential elections. Michigan is a contradiction in terms. So an Irish-Catholic-Atheist-Socialist wedding, featuring a traditional Celtic band with modern influences, endless kegs of cheap domestic beer, on a farm “up north,” and MY ridiculous little garage band “headlining” makes absolute sense. The drummer, Jeff, “The God of Biscuits,” and I, along with a rotating cast of (increasingly-drunk) Bodhran-pounders and general well-wishers pounded on our instruments well into the wee hours of the morning. It felt great. Everyone there was in the palms of our hands. The neighbors must have hated us. I cried real tears on my girlfriend’s shoulder, terrified about the life I was leaving behind in exchange for the open maw of uncertainty. I felt like a General on the eve of an epic battle. I felt like a celebrity (for literally the only time in my life).
The next day, or the day after—maybe, I don’t know, it’s a blur of driving, not sleeping and fear—I deposited what stuff I hadn’t thrown out in my new Jersey City apartment. We went out for Chinese food, and my fortune said, “Perhaps it is time to try something new.” It was raining—it always rains on the biggest days of my life. My girl and the God of Biscuits sped down Kennedy Blvd. I felt like nothing would ever be the same, and I felt like I’d never see them again.
Of course, I saw them again, but nothing has ever been the same. I set myself a goal of seven years to make it in the big city. My family worry-warting about what would happen to the kid, I made up a date that seemed like it would never come: September 1, 2009. I would be a couple of months past my thirtieth birthday. I had no intention of living that long, but if I did, maybe I would have “made it,” whatever that means, by then.
I remember giving this vague, open-ended description of what would happen: “I’m gonna move, I’m gonna try to get hooked up with a label. I’m gonna make records and see if I can’t figure out how to tour. In 2009, I’ll reassess, and if I’m not happy making music, I’ll go back to college. Of COURSE I’ll have to work, at least in the beginning.”
The bizarre thing is, I was able to do all that stuff. September 1, 2009, came and went with no reassessment (though it did mark the kickoff of my first European tour). I’ve made four albums of original songs for the Crafty label (www.craftyrecords.net), and am currently hard at work on album number five. Everything changed that day in 2002, but it’s kind of when my life really began. The last time I saw The God of Biscuits, he told me I should be writing all this stuff down.
I’m not trying to get maudlin here, but I realized in recounting the story of Mike and Kristy’s wedding that I’ve never felt that kind of…love…since. I’ve played more and more prestigious places, bigger rooms, etc., since that day, sure. But I’m always mad at somebody else on the bill, or trying to impress a girl, or nervous about a new song, or worried that no one’s gonna buy a CD, or pissed off that the kid who threw the show didn’t promote, or sorely missing someone at home. The last day I lived in Michigan was perfect, and it’s never been, again.
Weirdly, the best records that came out in 2002 were decidedly more melancholy efforts by artists who’d made their careers out of irreverent rock music. Beck, whose previous effort was the relentlessly hard partying Midnite Vultures (take Lee Hazlewood’s 13 and add the sex appeal of the average Prince album), delivered the devastating Sea Change—arguably the only time Beck Hansen has shown emotion of any kind. Wilco, the patron saints of irreverent country rock (albeit patron saints who had taken a turn for the dour with the gorgeous Summer Teeth in 1999) turned in the sonically oceanic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002. They were dropped from Reprise Records for lack of commercial potential (after the band was Grammy-nominated in 1999 for Mermaid Avenue, their collaboration with Billy Bragg on unfinished Woody Guthrie songs), then turned the claustrophobic masterpiece (sort of an American OK Computer) into their greatest critical and commercial success to date. The Flaming Lips, mostly known to this point as the band behind the silly, nonsensical 1994 hit “She Don’t Use Jelly,” went all introspective (and weirder than ever) on their 2002 effort, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. 2002 was a very, very good year for introspective, moody records.
Next week, our trip across the timeline is complete. I PROMISE to pinpoint the moment the music industry died, and who killed it. How to resuscitate it is still a mystery to me.
By Brook Pridemore