Tuesday, May 15, 2012
I forgot I even owned this record until recently. There's a lot of records in the "B" section of my collection - it's a popular letter - and this one got stuck down the back and forgotten about for a decade or more. Here it is again, rearing its ugly head and begging me to play it just once more. Some things I listened to back at the dawn of the '90s have not weathered the years well. I could play a platter by the Grifters, Cul de Sac or Dog Faced Hermans and still grin with extreme pleasure. Bongwater, Unrest, Yo La Tengo, those first few Sebadoh discs: all good. Frankly, you'd probably struggle to get me to spin a Didjits or Laughing Hyenas record at this point in history (or likely any other point in approx. the previous 18-19 years). Not that they're bad, per se, but I don't think I'd get much out of the experience. Tried listening to a God Bullies disc a little while back. Nearly killed me. The Dead C.? Not on your fucking life. I'm currently in the process of selling all the records of theirs I'm still in possession of. Recently a workmate was playing what I can only describe as being a "contemporary Dead C.-influenced band" on the stereo and I had to comment, What the fuck is this tuneless dole-bludging nonsense? It sounds like the Dead C. or the kind of can't-play-for-shit, deconstructionist, dynamic-free, tofu-eating, depressing horsepiss I used to love 20 years ago. He agreed that it was exactly that. A man of 40 years of age shouldn't still be playing that kind of music, surely. I don't mean to offend, though I possibly just have, but I find much of that no-fi drone-rock of of yore to possess zero appeal in this day and age.
And that brings me to Beat Happening's Dreamy LP from 1991, a split release between K Records (their own label... duh) and Sub Pop. Sub Pop was hot as shit at this point in history, as was K. Nirvana were about to break through to the shopping-mall consciousness of America and the world - it seemed like the entire universe was on the cusp of something - and Beat Happeneing were there to ride the wave. Hell, it could be argued that the trio known as Beat Happening - that's Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis & Bret Lunsford, from Olympia, Washington ("birthplace of grunge") - helped create the wave which Nirvana rode: if you made that case to me, I probably wouldn't argue too hard. Nor would Kurt and co. Other than the fact that I still really like this record on a musical level - it's the best thing the band ever did - I will admit to a certain misty-eyed nostalgia regarding the release. It really is one of those releases, at least for me, which captures that period in history to a tee. Fuggin' hell, I stenciled myself a K Records t-shirt after buying the thing: true story. Never got the tatt. The band's approach was always super-minimal, and an acquired taste, to say the least. Prior to Dreamy, I had purchased the Beat Happening's 1988 LP, Black Candy, in the year 1990. It took a while to sink in. My ears were not atuned to such musical debauchery. There was no bass, for starters; the drummer couldn't really play; the guitar work was sparse, moody but effective in an almost Crampsian manner, the highlight of their sound; and Calvin Johnson's vocals... sheez! The phrase "tone deaf" sprung to mind, but a few months of solid work - this is back in the days when each and every vinyl purchase was an event, and you weren't about to give up on a release so easily - and something had sunk in. By contrast, Dreamy was a cinch. The production was slightly clearer and bolder, but never too slick, Heather's drums had reached an ace Moe Tuckerish rocksteady rhythm and Lunsford's guitar mixed up Crampsy twang with lush washes of distortion, even comprising effective guitar solos. And Calvin? His vocals had moved from slightly atonal to a deep, deep croon, like a baritone Leonard Cohen. And the songwriting matched the performance: Calvin sings on the bulk of them, and he nails it right on tracks like "Hot Chocolate Boy", "Revolution Come And Gone", "I've Lost You" and my personal fave, "Cry For A Shadow". Being a 19-year-old spud at the time, that chorus hit me hard. And Heather sings lead on a bunch of notables, too: "Left Behind", "Collide" and "Fortune Cookie Prize". I'm now 40 years of age and can still relate to the moods and sentiments of this record. Quite a few u/ground vets made fools of themselves in the wake of the grunge boom. I don't believe that Beat Happening fall within that category. Calvin Johnson is still around. He toured here a few years back. I didn't see him. Some friends thought he was an arrogant asshole. He may well be, but 21 years after the fact, as I sit here w/ a roof over my head and two infant daughters asleep in the next room, acting all grown up like that gormless, clueless 19-year-old all those years back never even existed (he sure did, and likely still does) I can still get a kick out of some of the music he made. But you don't buy or listen to records for the sake of my pathetic reminiscing; the fact is, Beat Happening sound like a real rock band w/ a purpose on Dreamy, it's post-Velvets drone-rock you can gamble on.