lost in the supermarket: a musical education in the early internet era

I first began listening to The Clash in high school. The internet was far past its infancy, but one could say it was an awkward teenager. It was the days before Youtube and Wikipedia and no one else I knew listened to old punk. If you even said “old punk,” kids thought you meant Green Day. It was a badge of pride if you even owned Dookie. These were the days of Blink 182 and Sum 41 and other quantified nouns. Sad times, indeed.

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I had a boyband phase in kindergarten, younger than most. New Kids on the Block it was for me then. But most of the kids I grew up with continued to listen to pop music (cited as the culture), while others took to the post-grunge spectrum (cited as the counter to this culture… the alternative, if you will).

As the nineties waxed and waned, I fell into the alternative. I became obsessed with understanding the gritty side of rock and roll. I can’t explain how, but early in life, I began to empathize with the outsider (as a cultural trope). I’m sure everyone does at some point; it’s the go-to cliche of adolescence.

I think the first moment the pendulum started to shift was when my mum played Bill Haley. Having never properly heard rock and roll before, it blew my mind. This was definitely something far more profound than anything contemporary pop music. From there, I listened to a lot of early rock and roll courtesy of my mother: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Supremes, the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Wonderful.

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And then I remember my dad introducing me to Bruce Springsteen. It was Springsteen that made me realize that people could sing about something other than love, dancing, or variations thereon…. And then I remember seeing Smashing Pumpkins playing the Grammy’s. At first I could not comprehend this strange music lacking in melodies. I could not fathom why someone would want to scream rather than sing. But that wasn’t the point. Combined with what I learned from the Boss, music took on a whole new dimension.

In the same way we create history in our head into order to provide context for our own lives, I wanted to know the story of rock and roll. If you grow up in North America, you grow up with a culture screaming at you that music is important. Music means something. Music tells us who we are. I’m not necessarily going to dispute that, but I think it’s important to question how we think music tells us who we are.

Why did every kid in high school feel the need to identify with a social group? And why was a key identifying characteristic of a social group what music you listened to? Why was it impossible for you to like, say, both Goldfinger and Spice Girls? Especially if the former were made famous by covering a song that was in the same genre as the latter? Is that the essence of society: cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy? Perhaps.

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But I needed answers to these questions. I needed to know why certain music was counter-culture. Because I never felt like alternative properly identified who I am. Whatever I was, it was not pop music. And the whiny caddishness of most post-grunge was not it either. Nothing was substantial enough. The closest I got in the nineties was Hole.

I wish I had easier access to riot grrl. It would have been exactly what I was looking for. I can only blame a male-bias, but I remember reading nothing but hatred for Courtney Love. I still don’t get it. It’s hard to imagine spending your formative years listening to solely the perspective of the opposite gender and not being fucked up by or pissed off with the whole experience. There was remains to be something empowering and cathartic about hearing Courtney Love scream with frustration at being used and objectified so blatantly.

But, as I said, Youtube and Wikipedia did not exist then. It was hard to discover music outside one’s social circle. If people you knew weren’t into it, it might as well not exist. The radio failed me. There was no zine culture at my school and my funds – and record-store selections – were limited. The best I could do was scour through magazines and library books and try to parse out what seemed interesting, influential, and important. I might not have been able to hear a lot the music I read about, but at least I could use it to build a historical framework and narrative structure.

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When Napster finally appeared, it was a god-send. Now, I spent night after night downloading songs I had read about. A whole new world broke open. Music finally began to make sense. I could fill in all the bare bones of my framework, all this tiny elements of influence that had fused together to lead from one major musical trend to another. Amazing it is how so many musicians and songwriters whose work bleeds through the prevailing zeitgeist of each generation can remain so relatively unknown themselves.

This how I really got into The Clash. (Talk about burying the lede, I know. A thousand words in. Apologies.) I had heard The Clash before, but the stuff that made it to the radio lacked the bite of the stuff that didn’t.

To say that The Clash changed my life is to miss the point. The Clash didn’t change my life so much as they showed me who I already knew I was. It’s so rare that something truly clicks with you, but I believe it’s one of the things we live for. Think about it. How often do you truly meet a person that just gets you? How often do you read a book or watch a film or appreciate a work of art that you just get? You know what I mean. It happens. But so, so rarely.

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The Clash I just got. Every artistic choice, I wanted to say to Joe Strummer, “I getcha. I’m with you.” Even with the missteps, I wanted to console, “I see what you were going for and you tried. You failed, but you learned. It’s a process. A discovery. I can’t wait to see what you do with the lesson learned.”

It’s fascinating when you find an artist you can grow with. And even though most of their catalogue was before my time, that’s how The Clash felt to me. I don’t mean that I aged with their work, like “an album a year in progressing maturity, like fucking Harry Potter,” but more that as I aged, I could appreciate the work in different and deeper ways.

When I first got into The Clash, my favourite song was Lost in the Supermarket. So typical, I know. I wasn’t capable of detecting the sarcasm of the lyrics. Like most reviewers at the time, I, too, took it as a sentimental Mick Jones ditty. But I liked it. Because I was a melodramatic teenage girl, I thought it spoke to me and my lower middle class upbringing.

But then I grew up, gained some fucking perspective, realized Joe Strummer wrote the lyrics not Mick Jones, and I realized again why first generation punk was the best and why punk has never quite been the same since. Post-punk lost its sense of self-awareness.* Lost in the Supermarket is conscious of its backstory. Lost in the Supermarket makes fun of its self while also turning that self-awareness on its head. Lost in the Supermarket is a great example of how punk is at its best when the personal is political.

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The disconnect seemed to grow as punk splintered off into hardcore (just political), emo (just personal) and so on. To me, that is what music is at its best: the personal as political. Navel-gazing has its place. Politics have their place. But like any good art, the artist hands out an extension of themselves and says: This is who I am in the world and this is why it matters.

And that is what I had always been looking for in music. It’s what I still look for.

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*I am well aware of the cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy inherent in first generation punk, especially with the sad realities of facts like The Sex Pistols being just as manufactured as a boy band. I could go on at length, but I think the core importance of first generation punk is that it was so desperately needed. Just as rock and roll was needed, just as the explosion of genre in the sixties was needed, just as grunge was needed, and just as I feel something new is needed now.

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– Bruce Springsteen

(“A Long Road To ‘High Hopes’: An Interview With Bruce Springsteen,” Ann Powers, NPR,  January 15, 2014)

a stream of consciousness rant formed whilst over-hearing co-workers complaining about the grammys

There’s a casual dexterity to which I sometimes overhear complaints about the mildness of winters these days in the same breath used to disregard the younger generation as if the effects of climate change are something so sudden and incomprehensible to them as a musical trend.

Yes, people wear plaid these days but in case you forgot the seventies it’s all part of a continuum in a way you don’t like to think about because it forces you to realize this pattern started several millenia before there were water coolers to bitch around.

Please don’t nostalgically reminisce about Billy Joel and hum a few lines of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and then complain about pop stars these days using sex to sell music because you follow that statement up with praise for Katy Perry as “wholesome” and disdain for Lorde as “too gothic.”

The Grammy’s haven’t been relevant for years, but irony is just so in vogue these days.

death is a star / no country for old men

I love (almost) everything about The Clash, and this is one of my favourites:

I was listening to it, and being the English lit student I have been, I took a closer look at the lyrics.

Which happen to be:

And I was gripped by that deadly phantom
I followed him through hard jungles
As he stalked through the back lots
Strangling through the night shades

The thief of life
Moved onwards and outwards to love

In a one stop only motel
A storm bangs on the cheapest room
The phantom slips in to spill blood
Even on the sweetest honeymoon

The killer of love
Caught the last late Niagara bus

By chance or escaping from misery
By suddeness or in answer to pain
Smoking in the dark cinema
You could see the bad go down again

And the clouds are high in Spanish mountains
A ford roars through the night full of rain.

The killer’s blood flows
But he loads his gun again

Make a grown man cry like a girl
To see the guns dying at sunset

In vain lovers claim
that they never have met.

The hauntingly beautiful poetry, coupled with fantastic atmosphere of the music make me think of this:

Which really is its own kind of cinematic poetry.

I don’t really know where I’m going with all of this, but there’s something exquisite and abstract connecting this all in my brain. Perhaps later I will attempt to explain it and extrapolate out my thoughts into some kind of essay connecting Cinema, the American West, and (Post-)Punk Rock. There seems some kind of a loose potential; underneath each of those points is a strange undercurrent of the ideologies of masculine identity, violence, and Frontierism, and both The Clash and the Coens seems to be making some kind of deconstructive/self-reflexive statement on that.

Hmm…. indeed. Do I smell a potential thesis regarding punk rock and auteur cinema? Perhaps somehow related to the auteurs / punks having reached maturity? Oh well… so much abstract that now I need to read a bunch of web comics to bring my brain back to some semblance of normalcy.

one of my favourites

File this under “Songs That Are Really Depressing When You Actually Listen To Them.”

‘dirty king’? yeah, it’s kinda like that

I spent about a week procrastinating and finding a million others things to do than write this review. (When I finally did it just now, it only took ten minutes.) I was supposed to have it done awhile ago. The album was out June 23. God damn it. Why do I say ‘yes’ to things so quickly? It always ends with me pissing someone off and feeling guilty and as full of shame like a doughnut is full of jelly. Horrible analogy, I know, but let me indulge: The shame, like that jelly, is so bad for it almost gives you cancer at first bite, yet so, so, so good. But no, it’s not good, is it? It’s quite sickly and very untrustworthy. YET WHY DO YOU GIVE INTO IT? Why do I do these things to myself?

I think the answer is I am far too spontaneous. Sometimes this is fun, most of the time this is fun. In fact, the pros would whip the cons in a Celebrity Death Match, but still, I get myself in trouble a lot. Spontaneity is what caused me to suddenly plan a four-month trip to Europe, and spontaneity is what got me through most of it.Yet Spontaneity is what made me realize the NIGHT BEFORE I flew to Paris that I hadn’t got my line of credit signed off. Spontaneity got me wandering drunk through a Bavarian forest at midnight (true story). Spontaneity even got me laid a few times. Okay, several times. I do regret about 78% of those, however. Kidding. Kidding…. sort of.

Spontaneity is also what made me apply for film school, and get in. Spontaneity got me my job right now. Spontaneity made me start a zine distro. Spontaneity made me jump of a bridge. Spontaneity made me say ‘yes’ to starting a film company, to starting a magazine, to end up living where I am. I make decisions at the drop of a hat. On the turn of a screw. On the flip of a coin. Usually, however, they are something that has been flitting through my mind for awhile, the way we consider all life’s possiblities in that near-dreamlike state, until something triggers them, giving me the opportunity. I usually pounce at it before I realize exactly the magnitude of what I’ve done.

Sure, I regret some things I’ve done. But they are all frivolous regrets. Nothing worth turning back the clock on. The only few serious regrets I have are all of inaction. Isn’t it better to regret things you’ve done rather than regret things you haven’t done? Especially, of course, if the thing you haven’t done is write that review on time.

THE CLIKS – DIRTY KING (2009) (Warner Music Canada)

I feel lucky enough to say that I picked up The Cliks’ Dirty King back in May when they opened for the New York Dolls at Richard’s on Richards in Vancouver. The third album by the Canadian band, Dirty King is a deeper, richer, more diverse effort, that shows the band, and especially songwriter Lucas Silveira’s true coming-of-age. While the band has received plenty of attention due to Silveira’s status as a transman, this might appear unjust, as it truly is the music that deserves to be heard.

It is far to easy to listen to the album with the theme of sexual identity running through one’s mind, but that would be selling it short. Musically, Silveira’s work treads emo water, especially on tracks like Career Suicide and We Are the Wolverines; treads, yet transcends. Other tracks, like the eponymous Dirty King and Henry are simply great rock songs. These ones pull you in. Slower, deeper efforts like Not Your Boy and Henry keep you there. The only song I found myself skipping when I had the CD on repeat was Love Gun, which isn’t really that bad, but I just couldn’t get over the inherent cheesiness of the title. Alas, nothing’s perfect.

Despite this, I found Dirty King to be one of those elusive, yet wonderful things. One of those albums where (almost) each track stands on its own, but the album as a whole is a powerful combination. Having to live up to the reputation of being compared to everyone from the likes of David Bowie to the White Stripes to Chrissy Hynde, The Cliks have a style that is at once unique and familiar. They fit well into the fabric of contemporary rock, not too “indie” sounding, not too bland, and thus should be able to find a wide audience with this decent release.

TRACK LISTING
1. “Haunted”
2. “Dirty King”
3. “Not Your Boy”
4. “Red and Blue”
5. “Henry”
6. “Emily”
7. “Career Suicide”
8. “Love Gun”
9. “We Are the Wolverines”
10. “Falling Overboard”
11. “Animal Farm”