Art for Art’s Sake


Thanks to the runaway growth of the celebrity industry, the late 20th century will probably be remembered more for oily compliments than for witty put-downs. Perhaps that’s why one of the highlights of last year’s NXNW conference in Portland, Oregon, came during a set by the band Junior High, when former Crackerbash singer Sean Croghan, a man who evokes a younger, balder Elvis Costello, stopped one song cold to sing a verse a cappella. “They say Art imitates life/They also say he beats his wife,” spat Croghan, and there was an audible gasp as the audience soaked up this majestic affront. It was as if Croghan had slapped a lacy white glove across the face of Portland’s resident rock star, Art Alexakis, who, in 1993, was charged with domestic violence.

Alexakis is loathed in Portland’s slack-like-me underground, and not just for that incident (he has, incidentally, since received counseling and is still married to the complainant). To guys like Croghan, Alexakis’s band Everclear is the archetypal alt-rock nonentity, rootless, soulless, and utterly calculating in its quest to cash in on the post-Nirvana pop economy. Croghan and Co. might cite as proof of Alexakis’s inauthenticity the fact that back in the late ’80s, he led a San Francisco based band called Colorfinger that allied itself with a then hip country-punk movement; four years later he resurfaced in Portland with a short purple buzzcut and a band–Everclear–which rode to the top via an ethos that made much of his debatably grungy past as a heroin addict.

Boldly, Alexakis didn’t even bother to change his music, only his appearance and the tag used to describe it. But the truth is that Everclear, who’ve been known to cover Tom Petty live, have never been the smallest bit indie-rock. The band plays a more classic-rockinfluenced genre–midtempo, power-chord ridden ballads in 4/4 time shot through with the hurt-and-angry white-guy ethos that you hear all the time on songs by Counting Crows, the Wallflowers, and even Hootie and the Blowfish. Much of this genre is suspiciously sappy at heart; Alexakis’s version, though extremely tuneful, is comparatively aggressive, and that’s a good thing, since his blunt and pugnacious persona would curdle immediately at the least drop of sentimentality.

So Much for the Afterglow is Everclear’s third album, and its first in the wake of its 1995 smash hit Sparkle and Fade. One of its more admirable traits is the way it addresses the allegations made against Alexakis by the Portland cognoscenti. “I hate those people who love to tell you money is the root of all that kills,” he snarls on “I Will Buy You a New Life.” “They have never been poor, they have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas.”

Them’s fighting words to the effete indie world, and Alexakis knows it. But because his personality is so intense, Alexakis is doomed to tell the truth, or what passes for it in pop. That’s probably why So Much is such an adult album: both self-righteously anti-idealist and very antielitist. It is a record about lost illusions and growing up, about coming to terms with reality, and the resulting songs eat at the heart of a lot of indie-rock cant. The title cut, for example, begins with a hazy Beach Boys harmony before degenerating into a hard tuneful blitz. “This is a song about the way things are,” shrieks Alexakis, and amazingly, it is, as are many others. Though like many a songwriter, Alexakis makes way too much of his shitty childhood–deadbeat dad, schizo mom, and a subsequent feeling that “I will always be weird inside, I will always be a little lame”–he is a short-story writer at heart, moving easily among first-, second-, and third-person narratives.

On the first-person songs–“I Will Buy You a New Life,” for instance, and “Why I Don’t Believe in God”–he concentrates on his own personal failings; elsewhere, however, he tries to get inside the heads of his detractors. On “California King,” for example–which may or may not be about another former Portland rock star, Courtney Love–he rages against someone who sounds very like himself. On “One Hit Wonder,” he again justifies himself in the third person: “He likes the big time/he wants to live the kind of life/that will make the folks back home/scream and bitch and whine,” he sings, as if from Croghan’s point of view, only to conclude–as himself–“but they can’t hurt you unless you let them.”

In short, Alexakis isn’t afraid to be an asshole–or shoot holes in certain perverted rock ‘n’ roll myths. One of the more surprising themes that emerges is a sympathy to feminism, although it’s usually harshly expressed. “She is perfect in that fucked-up way,” he sings on “Amphetamine,” “that all the magazines seem to want to glorify these days.” The single, “Everything to Everyone,” describes a girl who tries too hard to please, because, Alexakis points out, “you are blind to the fact that the hand you hold/is the hand that holds you down.” And, on “White Men in Black Suits,” a song about a too hip rock ‘n’ roll couple who live on money earned from stripping, Alexakis really lets rip at the fallacies that abound about how empowering the sex industry is. “The white men in black suits,” he sings, “I think that they diminish you, I think that they diminish me, I think they are diminishing.” The way he sings it, “minishing” sounds like “machine.” It’s a nice moment.

Alexakis has his pretentions–like calling himself “A.P. Alexakis” on the production credits, an undoubted reference to A.P. Carter. Musically, he has evolved a formula that involves distinctly sour notes, anthemic choruses, and straight-ahead martial beats. And for all his railing against life’s little hypocrisies, there is a slight callowness to his work: he seems unable to envision a woman who doesn’t at some point act neurotic, drugged, or helpless. So Much for the Afterglow is both melodic and epigrammatic enough to get away with such dramatic personae, but for all Alexakis’s large-mindedness, the album ends with a distinct kiss-off: “I wish that I could have a drink and make you pay/I wish that you would go away.” Ah, but if that happened it would be a case of life imitating art–and Alexakis, of all people, knows that will never happen.