The alt-rock-wave rose in the 80’s, crested in the early 90’s, then sloshed down and inundated the realm of big hair sugar pop. For a while it washed the dull platitude of pop gunk from the psyche of the restless, pensive, self-reflecting post-punk generations. For a while the music led, the bands were our families. They were our spelling bee champs, un-pretty and nervy on stage, playing with more grit than talent. Plucking words from the TV dictionary to paint rough pictures of who we are, why we’re here, and why it’s all really messed up.
“What about Canada, It’s paradise with pines and ice…they never lock the doors at night, and kiss those wars goodbye,” Doug Martsch of Built to Spill sings at us from within the blue specked lights of the Vogue stage. His grey beard is a surprise to me. I reach to my own face, feel the late stubble, and wonder if mine would look the same. The band, like many from the dawn of the alt-rock-revolution, has become a mirror, a satellite, and a reminder for all things once angrily new and now matured into unexpected forms. Since when is Built to Spill a “jam band?” Who are these kids making bootlegs like we’re at a Dead show? Wait! Did the band just play a Dead song? Doug nods to the band mid-song, slight-smiles over his shoulder as if to say, “see, told you so, kids like the Dead.”
Doug doesn’t really sing at us, he breathes us all in, ingests the era, our ilk, and prisms it into worded ribbons that flow from the hole in his head. His weary preacher face, his inside eyes, seek past us and into the parallel histories the books don’t tell. The answers are not for alt-rockers alone, though it cuts my heart a little to think Built to Spill and the String Cheese Incident might have fans in common. This is my band! It’s my music! When did it become anybody’s music? Why shouldn’t it be? Isn’t that what the alt-rock revolution wanted?
“You were wrong when you said everything’s gonna be alright…You were right when you said it’s a hard rain’s gonna fall…”
Doug hunches on his wire-hanger shoulders, his head bobbles up, his chin trying to escape from his neck. He could be shouting up at a parent, a teacher, any authority. He clamps his eyes shut, tilts his bare-balding head on an slick angle as if the observatory within his brain has identified a new star just slightly to the left. He sucks the air in but sends the words out. His mouth a black spot beneath his beard, his voice a strained crackle, a collected Tarzan of skinny geeks who use their smarts to outwit the dumb demons.
“I wanna see it when you find out what comets, stars, and moons are all about. I wanna see their faces turn to backs of heads and slowly get smaller. I wanna see it now.”
Don’t kick sand in my face. I’ll press this pedal and noise you the fuck back to where you belong, on a cereal box, behind shrink wrap, on a bathroom wall. See, I have a band now. See, look at the audience, it’s everybody, not just the alt-rocker mafia, it’s your children. They don’t listen to you, they listen to me and I’m going to tell them the truth about the fucked up world you’ve left for them.
“I can’t be your apologist very long. I’m surprised that you’d want to carry that on. Count your blemishes. They’re all gone. You can’t. Putting them back on I can’t see your response. Like they’re waiting for your guard to fall. So they can see it all and you’re so occupied with what other persons are occupied with and vice versa…
And you’ve become…what you thought was dumb.”