Cover of the Week 15 Hardly Getting Over It
See, this is that this Cover of the Week project is good for. Here I am, Sunday night, was out until 3:00 last night playing at Toad, worked all day today at the day job, home for dinner and a pummeling from my 4 year-old dude (boys are way more punishing than their sisters on old fellas like me), my voice rough from the previous multi-set night, a couple of glasses of wine and the couch. That would usually be the end of it. It was a long week and I have another busy one coming up, so I knew I had to get this week’s installment of my little self-assignment going if I was not going to lose any momentum.
When Buffalo Tom first went on a tour, it was 1989 and it was in Europe. Until we got there, we couldn’t fully comprehend that there were people who listened to our music over there. It actually started to happen for us overseas — in the UK, Holland, Belgium, and Germany – before we even started being able to headline clubs in Boston. They were gobbling up pre-grunge-era indie label American guitar rock in these countries. We hit the road for a six-week tour that took us all over the continent and England. It was a quick lesson in the extreme highs and lows of being in a band on the road, playing in foreign countries, carousing, having a blast every night, walking the streets of new cities every day. But it was also a long time to be away from home, the longest I had ever been away, and I was homesick and trying to hold together a serious relationship at its early stages with the woman who became my wife. And the band was also dealing with the extreme closeness of each other in the squalid confines of cheap hotels, crowded vans, phallic-graffiti-strewn cold dressing rooms, hangovers, lack of sleep, and basically just learning about our own and each other’s individual personality features and failings in the highly unnatural test-tube rock-tour lab.
But the highs were exhilarating, all experienced for the first time: our first festival set; first time in all these countries; first time headlining in clubs to hundreds of people who knew our songs; and the first time seeing real press attention in anything, never mind big national weeklies like NME, Melody Maker, Spin, and so on. Getting taken seriously in interviews and seeing thoughtful and at-times glowing reviews was extremely encouraging. All the bands that were from our particular era and milieu were going through the same sorts of experiences. We had known about such friends as Dinosaur, Lemonheads and bands we loved like the Pixies and Throwing Muses going overseas and coming back to Fort Apache studio with exciting tales from the road about the level of enthusiasm and how well they were treated.
One of, if not the single most important and immediate influence on Buffalo Tom was the band Hüsker Dü. I was still a kid in high school when I first heard them. I had been obsessed with R.E.M, Talking Heads, Clash, Elvis Costello, Buzzcocks, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen and other song-oriented artists. It was a natural progression from my days growing up listening to classic rock and pop. Many of the bands I listened to, even the punk bands like X and the Gun Club, were rooted in traditional American music. I appreciated the continuum and aspired to that. I enjoyed going to see and have a laugh at shows from Flipper and such Cali punk. But very little Boston, D.C. and other sort of suburban hardcore did anything for me. It was really what made me feel closed-minded musically for the first time in my life. I needed some melody. And I also liked soul and this stuff just lacked any semblance of boogie. But I felt like a lot of my friends were hearing something in the fast, loud, non-melodic rat-a-tat of some of these bands. It just wasn’t my thing. I would rather grow out my bangs, put on some flannel and paisley and mumble some impressionistic lyrics over folky electric melodies like Michael Stipe or Boston’s Neats. I guess I was more of a romantic than an anarchist. Not sure where I fall on that spectrum nowadays.
The first band to make sense of hardcore for me was Hüsker Dü. I got Zen Arcade while still in high school. The band had been drifting away from their more straight-up loud-fast-rules hardcore for a few records. This record was a sprawling double-LP set of youthful angst and alienation played through most of the set with a primal urgency and reckless abandon (the record was completed in a few days, I recall). But there were truly pretty moments of almost quietude – a piano vignette here, a meditative feedback squall there. And one of the prettiest melodies on the record is song called “Pink Turns to Blue,” sung by Grant Hart and set to a driving attack from the band. It was the perfect record for a high school kid like me, lyrically and musically. Probably a lot like Born to Run was for kids a little older than me, and how the Hold Steady, another great Minneapolis band, might be for a kid hip to that sort of thing now, songs about fearing life in a dead-end suburb, factory jobs, drug abuse, broken homes, inability to keep young relationships together – in other words, complex emotional subjects that were far different than the didactic coldness of most hardcore.
But of course, this meant that Hüsker Dü was no longer “hardcore.” This was fine for me, even as I went back and delved into their more raw early records. But it was Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Candy Apple Gray, which form one of those classic mid-career trifectas for me and many more like me, including Chris and Tom from Buffalo Tom. Our shared love for these records was one of the main impetuses for bringing us together to form a band.
So you can imagine how excited we were when Grant Hart named our first record as his favorite of the year for NME or one of the British weeklies. “Giddy” might be the word. And you can further understand my thrill when, on one of those late-night post-gig phone calls home from a telephone booth somewhere in the streets of England, my girlfriend told me to guess who called me at out apartment in Boston. Just tell me, I said. Grant Hart, she said. You gottabefuckingkiddingme.
“No, he was very nice,” she said. “We chatted for a long time. He’s a fan of the band and just wanted to talk.”
I don’t really remember much beyond that. I am sure I went back to tell Chris and Tom. I will have to see if they have any recollection. But over the years, we got to meet Grant, saw him play various shows in Boston with the Nova Mob. I still have never met Bob or Greg. We had the honor of having Grant play some solo sets with Buffalo Tom not too, too long ago, in Chicago and at First Ave. in Minneapolis. I think I got him to sing “Diane” with me. I even drove around his home city with him during that little string of dates, in some old bomber of a sedan. He’s a good guy with a big heart, though I can’t pretend to know him much more than that. But if you had told me when I was a senior in Medfield High that I would even have this much to tell you, I would have been dazzled.
One of those major-impact songs on me, as a writer, a singer, a guitarist, in founding a band, and just as a plain old music fan is my Cover of the Week this week, a Bob Mould song from Candy Apple Gray, “Hardly Getting Over It.” I played this acoustic-driven ballad to death when I got this album. Those suspended folk-rock chords – pretty much the basis of all songs I wrote for Buffalo Tom. Please excuse my gig-worn voice and relative lack of inventiveness with this one. It is simply a lovely song that needs only to be played simply.
My allmusic.com review from the turn of the century.