Total Systems Failure


As anybody who has flipped past Rolling Stone‘s editorial page to read their business section recently can attest, popular music is undergoing what those in the know like to call “really something.” All the record company people who signed the good indie bands and orchestrated bringing us the very best music of the ’90s are being put on ice in favor of rootless meanies who favor brand-name ballads, dance crazes, and tits. It’s perhaps true when people paraphrase the Clash these days that “even if the Beatles flew in today, they’d send no limousine anyway” (although people declaring such usually forget that the Beatles seemed harmless at the start, which is how they got so big; they began as Backstreets and became Beasties). So far, in my debatably short life, I’ve been lucky enough to see punk fall out of fashion not once but twice (it was better the second time because effects pedals caught up with the theory, and deadpan wit entered the rhetoric; at long last, wiseasses got the girls!). We had some good times, didn’t we, back when smart, sloppy groups had their shiny moment, back when the paying public seemed to’ve come over (at last!) to our way of thinking. Then the record companies ran out of Nirvana specialty reissues and Sonic Youth did not make another Daydream Nation and stupid Mark E. Smith assaulted his girlfriend while Elvis Costello forfeited his place in the pantheon and generation-defining classics were on the tips of the Breeders’ and Uncle Tupelo’s tongues when the band members turned on one another as Nick Cave and Morrissey became jokes and Bob Mould and Mike Watt continued on cluelessly and the gifted pop band Christmas came back as the utterly irrelevant smug swingers Combustible Edison and traditionally deserving dues-paying types like Vic Chestnutt and the Fastbacks could not get a commercial purchase on the popular imagination as everybody from the Posies to Pearl Jam to Archers of Loaf never figured out how to make an album entirely important from start to finish, forgetting the point of pop stardom is to bring together huge clumps of otherwise unaffiliated folks, and Pavement couldn’t follow up the Pacific Trim EP with the requisite jubilant breakthrough (their Let It Be) and Catpower and the Mountain Goats defiantly clung to Dylan pre-’65 and Tom Waits was too late with The Black Rider and Yo La Tengo were inexplicably overlooked (how does that begin to happen?) and the fetish for releasing crappy home demos—whose very lack of finish lent them the steady hiss of a gradually disappointed public—succeeded only in stealing mid-decade credibility from keenly perfectionist pop stars like Robyn Hitchcock and Nick Lowe and They Might Be Giants precisely when they issued their masterpieces.

What a decade of sleights-of-hand and comic mistimings this has been, as we emerge with none of our alt-spokesmen standing, and their industry support utterly squeezed out between urban enthusiasts and country-western fans. Only a few years back you’d catch major-label A&R kids speaking like mature individuals who’d survived relationship counseling, saying that certain acts had to be nurtured, talking about honesty and commitment, that audiences required respect, that expectations had to be patiently shaped. . . . Well, such talkers are no more, replaced now by bottom-dwellers dwelling on the bottom line who treat imaginative singers and songwriters with contempt, like one-night stands. As a side consequence, not only have I been purged from the demographic that once used to nourish me, but also my demographic itself has been purged. People assure me the future is online and the underground will rise yet again, but lately my legs are cramping up, I’d like to sit down, so fuck you, how long am I supposed to wait? Should I be satisfied that Ween is nearly a household name? Am I to feel gleeful that Elliott Smith played the Oscars while resting in Celine Dion’s bosom and that the money we paid for the song “Man on the Moon” now brings it back to us in movie form? I can march up and down my aisle of favorite ’90s records and almost all I see are artists who guaranteed something they didn’t deliver or just got screwed (the one exception, I can be persuaded, is the Beastie Boys), or wonderful acts like the Lilys and Lambchop who would’ve significantly altered our beloved revolutionary popscape had they been promoted, or musicmakers in possession of Dylan’s head-full-of-ideas-that’re-driving-them-insane like Very Pleasant Neighbor and Death Cab for Cutie who couldn’t even get their discs into shops.

All of which is to say I like this band called Spoon. They’re three fellows from Texas who in 1998—after a record and a half on a small-ish label—made A Series of Sneaks for Elektra. Sneaks has all the sounds of crushed fury and longing I love, thick-tongued words that appear super-significant but once deciphered make sense only in a found-object sorta way, songs of a minute or two in length. It’s a record that stinks to high heaven of unbridled ambition (remember ambition?), reminiscent of Bruce Sterling—or some similarly pirate-minded attackist author person—assuring the Times that he wasn’t TRYING to do ANYTHING with CULTURE except to TAKE IT OVER. But would the takeover be worth celebrating? Despite Sneaks‘s old-fashioned enthusiasm about itself, Spoon were quite cognizant of all the ways ’90s rock was supposed to bring us together but hadn’t, because the breakthroughs didn’t break through, or the geniuses croaked or choked.

I listened to Sneaks mostly to imagine the singer guy’s face, a face I heard as resembling the young Joe Strummer, the young Paul Westerberg. The sneer, the hopefulness, the clouded gaze lit with fiery dawn. In truth, there lives no face not beautiful when painted in colors of passion and pride. Behind the brow furrowed in suspicion, in back of the scowl and the fed-up stubbornness, he sings as if understanding all we have riding on him, wanting more than anything to honor that.

By now you’re assuming I’ve made up this record because (1) you’ve never heard of it, and (2) things that’re that good get heard. They don’t, though. A lot of good bands don’t get signed, even more good bands make bad records, still more good bands make good records that’re distributed or promoted badly. Out of nowhere our tastes change and we confound the moneymen. The music market is just the dance of so many random intangibles. . . . The record companies alertly stand to the side, conducting polls and dictating memos, as baffled as anyone about why we’re sick of Alanis now but not yet over Britney, why we fickle folks like what we like. It’s akin to the stock exchange, really, a scene of bluffing gamblers, or a bunker full of addictive liars or con men guessing at the dreams of the customers—as Joseph did with Pharaoh—to thereby establish a wise reputation. Case in point, something went wrong, terribly wrong, with Spoon: Before their imminent classic Sneaks ever had its chance to be “worked,” some god gave them the finger. They were cut from Elektra’s roster only four months after Sneaks came out. (Four months! Jello pudding snacks have a longer shelf life.) Of course, it’s not just Spoon; that’s what I’m saying—everyone who looked or sounded “alternative” suddenly couldn’t summon up enough sales to make big the eyes of the bigwigs. Spoon, for one, were not surprised, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t hurt.

Their response was a two-song CD—a “concept single”—addressed to Ron Laffitte (their former A&R guy at Elektra). Lacking any context, I assumed, when first I heard how these songs hovered between sobbing and spitting, that they were telling about a cruel ex, or possibly an elected official who broke our hearts. Are you ever honest with anyone? “It’s like I knew two of you, man,” goes the vocalist, discouraged, disgusted, “one before and after we shook hands.” The songs—”The Agony of Laffitte” and “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now”—manage to say things that no band, to my knowledge, has ever sung to a former record company. They’re not exercises in bratty name-calling and bellyaching. Whether people like Elektra chairman Sylvia Rhone—who repeatedly assured Spoon she wouldn’t drop them until she did exactly that—deserve our pity or not, Spoon apparently think so. These songs do not lack sympathy. The singer sings as one who is intimate with betrayal, even expects it, for he himself has gotten through life—as Spoon’s only major-label title admitted—using a series of sneaks. This new release’s balance of compassion and blame and fury and guilt and impatience sounds creepily like Kurt Cobain will—once he’s dug up and unplugged again.

Camden Joy’s second novel, Boy Island (Quill/Morrow), appears in stores next month. Spoon’s single is available from