Runs in the Family


HERE WE GO AGAIN! Into the same ol’ same ol’? Do I repeat the past or jettison it? (Learning from it doesn’t seem to be an option.) We sit on the mattress in the corner, eating Chinese takeout, my new girlfriend and I. I tell her, “Don’t worry about what you’ve heard. I’m not like that anymore. Anyone could have a bad year.” Am I condemned to repeat the past, the same mess as last year, the same disconnection, the continual fear? The same false starts, the same detox? “Don’t worry about what you’ve heard.” My useless friends they tell her everything. “Don’t worry about what you’ve heard.” She’ll only try to reassure me, and I can’t stand that. “I left it all, I don’t want that other life.” But I hear that voice in my head say, here we go again.

Sound of my little daughter laughing. Heard through the window. Might as well just be a movie? (I’m here with the child-support check. Will they let me see her?) “It makes me happy to be alive, her laughter.” Even if it’s only through a window? Even if it’s only a movie?

Here we go again.

Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl,” it makes me think of a girl I used to know, when I hear it on the radio now. And Van is singing about a girl he used to know. See, a girl Van used to know reminds me now of a girl I used to know. I sing along when I hear it on the radio. And Van is singing about a song that he and the girl he used to know used to sing. (Got that? You need to be a math major to figure it out.) Then in Van’s song, he’s singing a song that he and the girl used to sing. He’s singing it, Sha la la la la la, la la la la la la. And I’m singing it, the song I used to sing, the one by Van Morrison, the song in which he sings the song he used to sing, which I’m now singing (this is better than Certs, four songs in one), Sha la la la la la, la la la la la la.

“My nightmares just don’t scare me now, baby, without you,” i.e., I’m better without you, but I still wish I could have found the words to tell you to go fuck yourself.

“You can have your way again. Yeah, you believe what you want to believe.” Yeah, blah blah blah, here we go again. Well, we can have our fight tomorrow. Tonight I’m just going to slip downstairs and sit in that thrift-store chair you like. “Yeah, I wish we had never bought a king-size bed.” True story: We shopped for a king-size bed together, but then broke up before we got a chance to share it.

Do you remember? Hungry cold happy. Strung out. Ramen. Macaroni and cheese. Listen to Otis Redding. Get wasted, blind. Want to sing like Otis Redding but I can’t. We were happy. I don’t want to be wasted, don’t want to be blind.

The plastic chair in the unemployment office. What an eye for detail! More Songs About Mental Dysfunction and Furniture. In every song I’m stretched between somewhere and somewhere else, heading for a breakup, a reconciliation, a breakdown, a pull-myself-together. I wish I were normal, but I never want to be normal like you. A love affair breaks down, my brain breaks down, I’m working toward the day when I can be normal like you. (I will never be normal like you.)

“I will never be your unemployed boyfriend.” She must think I’m weird. She must be saying to herself, “This is the first time he met me, he can’t know we’ll be together, he can’t know I’ll have his kids. And if he thinks this can be the basis for a relationship, then he’s really fucked up.” And Stan, what’s this shit about us meant to be together? That psycho shit’ll make me not want us to meet each other. (Actually, she thinks he’s cute: “kind of like Perry Farrell—intense but sensitive.”) When I walked into the bar at the Hotel Utah, the first time she saw me, she knew. Destiny. Fate. We were meant to be. (We lasted two years.) I just might be the one who will always make you come. (Listen, dumbass, people don’t make each other come. You don’t make someone come. Jeez.) Well, you break up, then you’ve got an absurd hope for the next one.

See clear, ever clear, clear sight, clear bottle, clear liquor, clear smash, clear blind, blind drunk. Everclear singer Art Alexakis is inarticulate about why his child is everything to him, which is why he writes about everything else instead, writes about absence: absent dad, unavailable child, the love that’s gone, the one that hasn’t happened yet.

Art Alexakis is the transition between the insanity of the past and the who knows what of the future, between his irresponsible dad and his dad’s grandchildren, who will grow up to be who knows what.

Cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon. The little kid in “Wonderful” tells his divorced mom: “I don’t want to meet your new friend, I don’t want to start over again.” The adults just tell him that everything is wonderful.

Now imagine him grown into a young man. His father calls from 2000 miles away “to find out how you’re doing.” The son puts up the usual wall, tells him things “aren’t bad.” The money will hold for another month. Don’t worry. Two job interviews. I don’t know why they didn’t call back. The place looked schmucky anyway and all the salesmen on the floor had to wear these stupid smocks. Yeah, I go to clubs. Yeah, of course I have two or three drinks. (Thinks to himself, “Why are we talking about this?”) The economy’s good, I’ll be okay, I’ll get something, I’m not worried. Gets off the phone. Damn, does Dad think I don’t worry enough? I’ve spent my whole life worrying—I’m the King of Worrying. And now I’ve got to worry about the fact that I make him worry. Christ! I’m not an addict. I don’t think I’m an addict. Just ’cause you were an addict doesn’t mean that I’m an addict. These conversations are so exhausting.

And on Dad’s end: There’s something this kid’s not telling me. It’s a blank. I don’t understand. (I know where you go when you wanna fall.) Maybe I’m imagining things. (Your useless friends they tell me everything.) Not everyone ends up living in a cardboard box. Not everyone ends up on drugs. (Your mom she says you’re just like me.) Something’s going on. Something’s wrong. (They say it runs in the family.) I wish I knew. (Don’t you wanna be happy?)

Here we go again.

Description and evaluation: I’m disappointed with Songs From an American Movie Vol. One in comparison to 1997’s So Much for the Afterglow. Christgau once warned against assigning a follow-up review to someone who loved the previous record. You invite disappointment. Well, too late. Afterglow was Who and Nirvana power chords brought down to routine, but it was a good routine, with unison guitar lines like sword slashes, probably overdone but done on really good hooks and riffs and songs. The new album is looser in the rhythm, has less wall of slash, relatively more lilt and funk, and more variety in the sound (that is, not all LOUD) and in the instrumentation; this is good in principle and even sometimes in fact (my favorite track copies “Mr. Big Stuff” and just does a gentle nostalgia groove on the ’70s), but in general the music is too diffuse. Also, I don’t understand the title or the cover photo: the band standing American Gothically in front of an old gabled house, guitar-bass-ukulele held vertically like pitchforks. The back photo has the band in riverboat-gambler garb. Neither has anything to do with this album or with many American movies, given that long ago the sticks nixed hicks pix, so flicks these days tend toward fireballs and laser rays and planes that crash and cars that explode. Also, the “American” makes me uneasy, implying that this is one of those things like Bachman-Turner’s “We’re an American Band” or Bryan Adams’s “Born in the U.S.A.” that are supposed to be specifically about us. Hey, I like to decide for myself if something’s about me, and though obviously I’ve decided that this album is, any Venezuelan or Eastern European equivalent that’s about fear, mental mess-ups, addiction, and divorce would be just as much about me, so I don’t think putting “American” in the title makes much of a point. (Which is fine with me.)

American Movie—like Afterglow—delivers “the everyday occurrences that make you feel like letting go,” though this time Everclear has varied what you feel, so it’s not entirely like letting go—which makes this album more exploratory but less intense. But I assume that anyone interested in these guys’ story is going to want this part of the journey. Think of it as a companion to next Pazz & Jop winner Eminem. Em gives you the letting go, the fireworks and the dazzle and the breakdown, while Everclear gives you the mundane details that occur between explosions.