Excerpt: 'Perfect from Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life'
A partial list of things music has made me do: fly overseas at considerable expense to see a live performance by a band I no longer liked, nurture a crush on a goth chick way out of my league, nurture a crush on an alternachick way out of my league, write a love letter to a German woman made up entirely of lyrics from my favorite synth band, reconsider fast friendships, get ticketed for doing 82 in a 55, drive around a remote area of England looking for a hero's grave, wear parachute pants without irony, perform the moonwalk in front of a crowded gymnasium, switch college majors, miss a final exam, shoplift (both successfully and unsuccessfully), dive to the bottom of a numbingly cold Scottish pond to retrieve my favorite T-shirt, stab my thumb into the back of a fellow concert attendee's neck to get closer to the stage, drink too much, lose my voice, stage-dive, cry, and regret. But it wasn't until I was thirty-three — on a Friday night in April 2004, to be more specific — that I found out exactly how important music was to me.
The evening began like so many others: the twist of a bottle cap, the first sip of beer, the descent of my buttocks into the swivel chair at my desk. My computer, a bulky eMac, still excited me a full year after I purchased it, in large part because it had completely changed the way I listened to music. Converting all of my CDs into searchable digital files had spoiled me. Gone were the days of hauling my carcass up to the wall-mounted CD rack to find the one disc that contained the one song required at a given moment. That song was now available with a click of the mouse — and it could be found while sitting down. Once again I fired up the iTunes program and within seconds a familiar song was dominating my apartment. As I scrolled through more than three thousand songs for the perfect follow-up, the value of iTunes as something other than a tool to organize and burn CDs revealed itself in a bang: play count. How had I failed to scrutinize this ingenious function before? Here in front of me was an unadulterated reckoning of how often I'd listened to each song in my collection since the uploading had begun nearly twelve months before — amazing. The frequency of seemingly uncountable thoughts and actions, such as the number of times I've said the word "awesome" or the sheer poundage of pizza I've eaten, has tantalized me for years, a desire that grew, most likely, out of a Saturday Night Live sketch from the late 1980s about a guy who arrives in heaven and proceeds to quiz an angel about all sorts of arcane trivia about his life, such as "What's the two hundredth grossest thing I ever ate?" (The answer: butterscotch pudding with a dead earwig in it.) Play count was offering up information that I wasn't supposed to have until death. It was a message from God. Or Steve Jobs, which is pretty much the same thing.
Okay, so the message wasn't divine; it wasn't even exact. Perusing the incredible totals, I quickly saw the problem. Take Outkast's "Hey Ya!" The single had been everywhere in recent months, and I had willingly submitted to it like everyone else in my age bracket. According to iTunes, the song, uploaded near the end of 2003, had been played just three times on my computer. Obviously I'd heard it many more times: at parties, on television, over the radio in the car, in a much-distributed Internet clip featuring dancing Peanuts characters, on a local tough's boom box outside my deli. "Hey Ya!" was inescapable. Exactly how many times I'd heard it was impossible to tell — 20? 40? But as a new beer was opened, a new rule was considered: Whatever play count said was law. The totals were probably only slightly misleading. Very few appealing songs were popping up with the frequency of a "Hey Ya!" — it was an exception, and thus an outlier. Neither the radio nor video channels were major sources of musical entertainment for me anymore. My CD player was rarely switched on, and I did not own an iPod. Couldn't nearly everything not heard on the eMac, my primary source of music delivery since my collection was uploaded, be discounted? The stats seemed sacred enough. I chose to run with them.
Not surprisingly, the numbers, in aggregate, confirmed that indie rock is my favorite genre of music; it has been for nearly two decades now. Since I'll be using that term often here, it could use some clarification — in part because the phrase has become nebulous in this relatively recent era in which Borglike conglomerates have swallowed up labels once considered too insignificant to matter, and also because indie rock may be defined differently depending on whom you ask. Back in the early 1980s, when the term started getting thrown around, things were relatively simple: You were either on an independent label or you weren't — and if you weren't, then you probably sucked, at least to die-hard fans of the genre. But then R.E.M. got popular. And Nirvana. So now confusion reigns. Purists might disagree, but I think the term can now safely apply to anything that feels independent, whether published on an obscure label or something insidiously corporate, and it can include songs that many people associate more closely with another of indie music's many aliases and subgenres: hardcore, postpunk, grunge, shoegazing, lo-fi, emo, and stuff we older sorts used to refer to as college rock or modern rock. Such classifications, as you might expect, can be personal. Most indie aficionados — that moderately large listener base that has always been woefully underserved by mainstream radio and MTV — would probably consider Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill and even Death Cab for Cutie to have retained their credibility after signing with majors. But what about the Smashing Pumpkins? How best to judge the case of Radiohead, which has always been on a major label? And what of Weezer, another major-label lifer — and one, in fact, that seems to be an independent band created in a major-label-funded laboratory experiment? I'll settle it: They're all indie.
However the genre is defined, I'm a fan. Well, mostly. Actually, lots of indie rock sucks worse than Dan Fogelberg. And just because I love indie music doesn't mean that it's all I listen to or that it's the only genre that matters. There is value in the Toto song "Hold the Line." I own every original studio album by Led Zeppelin, not to mention Coda. I will always possess the gene that makes some guys turn their vehicle into Neil Peart's ninetynine-piece drum kit whenever Rush's "Tom Sawyer" comes on. But I'll get into all that later. What's at issue here is that, thanks to the play count discovery, my listening habits were now both quantifiable and sortable. It was thrilling even to look at tracks that didn't rank among my favorites. How many times had I played the Pixies' "Velouria" in the past year? Twelve times — a manageable once-a-month craving. I had failed to listen to any songs from Soundgarden's Superunknown other than "Fell on Black Days," which caused me to rock out unabashedly sixteen times. Songs by old favorites New Order and the Cure were played in the same moderation as those by newer go-tos the Shins and the New Pornographers. Van Halen's "Everybody Wants Some!!" (22 listens) ranked ahead of anything by Nirvana, but the average number of times I'd listened to the first eleven songs on Nevermind (5.9 times) greatly exceeded that of the eight songs on Women and Children First (3.8 listens). But obviously this is not the information that blew my mind.
No, what made me reconsider my place in life were the songs at the top of the list when sorted by play count. At 193 listens, the song I had played most often during the previous twelve months was written by a band that most people have never heard of. In fact, the top ten songs — and seventeen of the top twenty (and thirty-five of the top fifty, and sixty-three of the top one hundred) — were all by that same band or its offshoots. The facts told me what I had only just begun admitting to myself: I was obsessed with Guided By Voices.
Now there are a few ways you can give in to musical obsession. You can give in suddenly and briefly — such as when, over the course of a few weeks or months, you find yourself hooked on a particular album (especially a debut album or a breakout album) and start talking up the artist to everyone you know; but then, after seeing a boring live performance or hearing someone you don't respect gush about the music, you just as suddenly denounce the artist as being annoying or unoriginal.
Or you can give in sporadically. This might happen if you are dealing with unfamiliar real-world concerns, such as a new job or mouth to feed, when you have neither the time nor the energy to satisfy the rigors of a full-blown obsession; it might also be that your passion peaked years ago and is only at the edges of your synapses now. But the mania is merely in remission; it is still there, waiting to flare up, much like herpes, at certain and often unpredictable moments: a release of a new bootleg, an anniversary of a hero's death, a reunion tour, a simpatico comment by a bartender, a delivery of killer weed.
Or of course you can go all in — and indeed, this is the most recognizable form of musical obsession. You let it dip into every facet of your life: your wardrobe, your hairstyle, the foods you eat, the drugs you take, the naming of your pets and children. Fanship of this type is generally expressed outwardly and unabashedly, and as such it tends to draw the bewilderment and ridicule of those who don't understand. Not that you really care what those morons think. You may appear on an MTV program talking about your fanatical devotion; you will almost certainly blog about it. Tattoos are possibly involved, and in wacko cases, plastic surgery. If you observe a hero wearing a hearing aid or wielding gladioli, you will likely get an intense urge to be seen in public wearing a hearing aid or wielding gladioli. There is a sense of competition among your own kind to be known as the most dedicated fan. But you also feel most comfortable when among other faithfuls, and you may even have friends or a spouse whom you met at a show or through a message board. En masse, you and your brethren may be given a label by outsiders, usually derogatorily: Deadheads, Phishheads, Parrotheads, metalheads, goths, Elvis freaks, Teshies, Idiots Who Think That Michael Jackson Isn't a Child Molester. In other words, you are the Trekkies of musical fandom. But you are also that most loyal of fans: willing, in theory, to get beaten down defending the music you love.
I didn't intend for intense musical obsession to find me. Not again. Not at the age of thirty-three. And especially not for the band Guided By Voices, which had been brought to my attention numerous times previously and summarily dismissed. It should have been too late. This was 2004, a decade past their heyday. The buzz was mostly gone. Their lead singer was forty-six. They lived in Ohio. But something stronger than reason was at work. A pleasant encounter with one of their albums had caused me to buy it on impulse. And then after a few listens a higher power assumed control. It made a Bloblike crawl through eBay and Amazon, eating up every CD in its path. But the music just kept coming: 252 songs on fifteen proper albums, hundreds more on EPs and compilations, and that didn't even begin to count the side projects, of which there were more than ten. A year and a half after that first listen, I had barely begun. Almost as compelling as the band's music (so familiar-sounding, with hints of the Who, the Replacements, and the Beatles — but also none of those) was its persona. These were hardworking Midwesterners whose collective genius had mostly been overlooked. Their lead singer and chief songwriter, Robert Pollard, had been an elementary school teacher. His brother, formerly in the band, worked at a General Motors parts plant. One of the drummers had been a male nurse. They wore sensible jeans, untucked cotton twill shirts, and high-top sneakers. They drank heartily. They loved sports. At last: regular guys who just happened to write transcendent songs.
Initially the iTunes totals made me proud. Puffed-out-chest, hands-on-hips proud. I'd listened to a song named "Game of Pricks" 193 times last year! But as the stats (and more beer) sunk in, it occurred to me that most people my age did not listen to music that way. With two or three exceptions, none of my friends seemed to listen to music anymore at all. Obviously they must have been doing so in moderation, and might have even been loving it, but not with the reckless abandon of youth. They were married, had tiny offspring, were focused on making money, on dinner parties, on breast pumps, on property. Somewhere along the line they had become adults. Adults do not spend thousands of dollars they can't really afford on paraphernalia relating to one band. They do not spend hours making wall montages featuring their new heroes in various comical poses. They do not plan trips around concerts — especially ones that involve air travel. Their biggest wish is not to meet a particular musician and get drunk with him. There seemed to be unwritten rules for people my age. Having diverse listening tastes: great. Going to the occasional concert: fine. Getting excited about one band more than others: okay, but watch it. Exhibiting fanboy behavior: embarrassing and not to be tolerated. Our differences in listening to music was a major reason I'd retreated from them, my best friends in the world. I wanted to hang out, hold court, and blare music, and they did not. I wanted to go to concerts, get drunk, and let go; they wanted to get up early. It was a drag.
Then again, I wanted money and property. I wanted to be taken seriously. And I profoundly missed my friends. The longing to mix with burgeoning adults but also the need to think and behave like a juvenile — these were conflicting, crippling desires. They seemed irreconcilable, too. To have fun, you couldn't go half-assed, but if you didn't go half-assed at my age, there were often severe consequences: increasingly painful hangovers, missed work and opportunity, a loss of interest in hanging out with more sedate friends, a frequently annoyed girlfriend. The warning signs were all around me. I'd seen how my dad turned out: Gollum, sitting happily in his cave, singing to his Precious. Did I want that to happen to me? Did I want to be a frothing man-child for the rest of my life? Over the next few weeks, with the obsession out in the open and my listening habits questioned, it dawned on me to conduct a low-level personal reckoning. Not in that Hollywood way parodied a few times on Seinfeld, in which George or Jerry would go to the pier at Coney Island, mull over his shallow existence, look around and see happy couples with kids, and finally run off, scuttling pigeons, determined to change his life. But I was experiencing relationship and career malaise — neither was very fun. My obscene musical devotion, and the lifestyle it espoused, didn't have everything to do with my stagnant reality. But it certainly had something to do with it. It was obvious that sooner or later some lifestyle tweaks would have to be made if I ever planned on having a cushy bankaccount balance or a significant other who wouldn't tire of my frequently immature and obsessive behavior. Not that I had any intention of abandoning the music; I have always envisioned my eighty-five-year-old self as the scourge of the nursing home, blasting songs so loudly (theory: Frank Black is my generation's Tony Bennett) that my shriveled neighbors will be forced to turn off their hearing aids. Maybe, though, it was time to consider listening to music differently.
From Perfect from Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life by John Sellers © 2007. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.