Finding High Fidelity
I’m a pretty cool guy. Admirers have alternatively described me as, “The reason I want to have children,” “The best and only hope America has against the terrorists,” and “He makes me hate everyone else I know for not being him.” One can see how it’s easy to forget that I wasn’t always the suave, well-adjusted ladies’ man that I am today. But it’s true; just a few years ago, I was an awkward teenager whose developing mind was losing a desperate battle against raging hormones. I was filled with all the emotions, both warranted and not, that so often accompany those years.
I’ve since shed many of the things that identified me throughout high school, like my “You wouldn’t understand, mom” haircut, but I’ve held dear to Explosions in the Sky. If you’re unfamiliar, Explosions is a post-rock group from Texas that plays purely instrumental music. When I was a freshman in high school, they were drastically removed from the rest of my favorite artists: there’s no crooning singer waxing poetic about any number of girls that he did or did not love, there’s no bass being dropped, there’s no pretense. They never hid behind the guise of irony or jadedness. They faced the unknowable abyss of human emotion with a stony resolve and a kind of sincerity that I had never yet experienced in music.
My punk-rock years were unexpected. I grew up an hour away from Manhattan and decades away from the mid-seventies, and there was a time when these circumstances seemed the greatest tragedy of my life. That was when I spent all of my money on records and CDs, when I spent days listening to Patti Smith and Richard Hell, when there was a thrilling sense of danger in the band names “Dead Boys” and “Sex Pistols.”
Punk was about disaffection, but I loved it with unfettered and unironic enthusiasm. Every band had something distinctive to listen to, and every band was amazing for it. It was during this manic stage of exploration that I discovered the Dictators, a short-lived group of Noo Yawk punks who cheerfully endorsed hamburgers, cheesy pop hits, and the suburban lifestyle. Fourteen years after they broke up, I was born, and fourteen years after that I discovered and soon fell in love with their debut album, “Go Girl Crazy.”
There are few albums with better openings than “Sticky Fingers” by the Rolling Stones. Seven fuzzy chords, unmistakably played in Keith Richards’ signature open tuning, ring out tremulously. Then drummer Charlie Watts breaks the reverie with a crisp pop on the snare, bassist Bill Wyman starts churning away, and the band is off, strutting and snarling, as if hurtling through the cotton fields of the American South in a Bentley S3 Continental. In 1971, the Stones—with their British cars, thick accents, and skinny jeans—were distinctly foreign to American audiences. But on “Brown Sugar,” they took a few simple chords, a wailing sax, and a whole lot of bravado, and burst through the Atlantic and across the Mason-Dixon Line as if they owned the land.
Some albums find you when you need them the most, and “Franks Wild Years” found me about a week after I graduated high school. In many ways it is a funny record for an obsessive Tom Waits fan like myself to latch onto. It is generally considered the weakest of the three experimental albums Waits recorded in the mid-eighties, after he quit playing the piano music that defined his early career. Not to imply that Pitchfork.com is the arbiter of all musical taste, but “Swordfishtrombones” and “Rain Dogs,” the two other works that heralded this turn in Waits’ music, placed 11th and eighth, respectively, on that influential music blog’s list of the “Top 100 Albums of the 1980s.”
“Franks Wild Years” did not even make it into the top hundred. It is subtitled “Un Operachi Romantico in Two Acts” and grew out of a fairly unsuccessful play Waits staged at Chicago’s Briar Street Theatre in 1986. It gained a small bump in popularity after the song “Way Down in the Hole” was used as the theme for the HBO series “The Wire,” but apart from that the album for the most part has slipped into obscurity.
I was born listening to Emmylou Harris—not literally, though I suspect my parents had her records playing by the time I came home from the hospital. I remember carving pumpkins when “Wrecking Ball” came out, listening to “Red Dirt Girl” with my baby sister, and trying to convince my parents that Emmylou was actually singing about my uncle Dever in “Deeper Well.” Her music was present the way my extensive caterpillar toy collection and two cats were: an aspect of my childhood that I never appreciated or contemplated but merely accepted as a fact of life.
I grew up. I gave my 15-member caterpillar family to a younger cousin. My old cats died, and new cats took their places. I cut my hair and grew it out again, only to dye it red a few years later. I bought baggy camouflage jeans to mimic Avril Lavigne and eventually traded them in for a distressed pair from Abercrombie. An iPod replaced my Walkman, running replaced gymnastics, I had a negligible growth spurt, and I kept my nose to the grindstone. I went to college. And along the way, I lost Emmylou.