Wednesday, March 05, 2008

We are Time....and the time I'm thinking of is 1984

I've always sneered at the idea of listening to nothing but music from a certain bygone period of your life. I mean, that mindframe seems reserved for the people who don't really like music; they're not listening because of the music, they're listening because of the images from the past that get conjured by the music. (If I'm being vague, let me give an example: somebody who would buy one of those 20th Century Masters compilations of Fleetwood Mac at Best Buy. And before you get on me about the band - everything in that scenario has to be in place: the particular disc, the [type of] artist/band and the location. There is at least one of those discs in our house, but they came from Paul's CDs.)

Anyhow.........I set that scenario up to knock it down, and take me with it.

A couple weeks ago, I won a copy of the Pop Group's album Y in an auction. They were a particularly polemic and abrasive British punk band, who added elements of funk and free jazz into their music, over which singer Mark Stewart often ranted and raved about politics and social issues. The album came out in 1979, long before the days of "in your face" approaches in music or art or commercials. Y came with a huge poster/lyric sheet that featured a collage of pretty disturbing images, including but not limited to a crowd looking on at a corpse while a young kid pisses on it; two nuns getting ready to bury a casket that clearly shows a young child or baby in it; a crowd of soldiers that seems to be firing on a crowd. Anyway, brutal stuff.

I had this album in high school; bought in 1984. At that time I was really into the punk-jazz group Rip, Rig and Panic which included two ex-Pop Group members, so I went back to the original source. Selling that album (sometime between high school graduation and college) has always been a big regret. Reissues of it are hard to find and usually overpriced, as are the original copies, which don't always have the poster anyway.

So I won the album (in one of those "I shouldn't've bid that high; I hope I'm outbid" moments) and when I got it and threw it on the turntable...............suddenly it was 1984 again. I remember the type of day when I bought it. It was early 1984, a Friday when we only had half a day of school, so I was planning on picking up that album at the Record Recycler (it was on hold), and then taking a girl back to my house to show her how to play the bass. (True story: she had casually said she'd be up for playing bass and I took her seriously, borrowed my brother's Rickenbacker and pretty much threw it at her.) Except she blew me off and I went home alone with the record. Since no one else was home I played it on the living room stereo while I made lunch.

All the songs came back to me right away last week. In fact, a lot of them were burned into my brain and have stayed there for 20+ years. The last time I saw Mike Watt, about four years ago, he encored with "We Are Time," the song I always thought closed the album. (Apparently I was flipped the a- and b-sides since neither were marked as such.) "Blood Money" is a free piece where slow bass and drums keep shifting in and out, with some sort of horn occasionally bubbling to the surface, while Stewart wails under a sea of echo. I remembered most of it. The opening of side two (or one) - a heartbeat, following by Stewart yelling, "Scream of my heart....BEAT" as the band comes in, sort of sloppy. Then there's "Don't Sell Your Dreams" a spare, quiet piece that explodes a couple times when Stewart bellows the title. Yeah, abrasive, but for all the right reasons.

The time period all came back to me: Thinking I might start a band with this girl, who might have been a crush or not depending on how I felt, and might've ended up being a real girlfriend if I would've had the confidence to pursue her and if I would've stopped talking about another girl that had dumped me a few months prior. I was listening to Rip Rig and Panic, playing sax in the marching band at school, and trying to figure out how I could do something as bold as RR+P. It wouldn't happen for two more years. I soon discovered the Minutemen, who I can really tell now, took a lot of cues from the Pop Group.

So anyway, now I know why people will latch on to some album from their past and not let go of it. Not that 1984 was a golden period of my life. It was actually filled with a lot of longing and wishing for things that either wouldn't happen or didn't happen for a couple years. But when you have all that free time to sit in your room and just listen to records and pine and read Henry Miller when no one's looking, and you're only job obligation is delivering the Post-Gazette and collecting payment for it once a week - things might not be too bad.

Post-script: During the '90s, I'd occasionally see the aforementioned girl (now a woman) out with a boyfriend and I always wanted to thank her because if it hadn't been for her flip "sure I'll play the bass" comment, I never would've borrowed my brother's bass, learned how to play it and started a band. I was always too shy and worried that she wouldn't remember me. I wonder where she is now.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mike,

My name is Joy Lesem and I was the keyboard player for the Stony Brook People.

If you want more information about the group please e-mail me at

shanleymusic said...

Wow - thanks for posting, Joy! I'll be writing soon.

Anonymous said...

Well written article.