Another cheery reminder that S. Alexander Reed and I have just had our book on They Might Be Giants’ Flood released by Bloomsbury Academic. You should buy it! On top of that, you should review it. No, really. The 33 1/3 series has a bit of a chronic problem in reviews, which is that people buy them expecting them to be extended Rolling Stone articles and then get cranky when they’re pop scholarship. So having people who understand what the book is trying to do put reviews in would really help. (Likewise, A Golden Thread is sad and unreviewed. Can you spare a few minutes for that?)
Right. So, you may recall Alex and I guest-editing 33 1/3’s blog last week. But we had some stuff on the cutting room floor, so I figured I’d use it here. First off, we have an entry that I am truly at a loss for why 33 1/3 decided not to run, preferring as they did our promo video…
Fifteen Cat GIFs Captioned With They Might Be Giants Lyrics
What’s that blue thing doing here?
A snowman with protective rubber skin.
Glass of milk standing in between extinction in the cold and explosive radiating growth
I took my boat for a car
She looked at me, I looked at something written across her scalp
The hip hop and the white funk just blew away my puppy’s mind
The water running down that pipe looks like a snake to me
Someone keeps moving my chair
By rocket to the moon, by airplane to the rocket, by taxi to the airport
The TV’s in Esperanto; you know that that’s a bitch
A jailer trapped in his cell
Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads
Where your eyes don’t go a part of you is hovering. It’s a nightmare that you’ll never be discovering.
What’s a guy like me supposed to do with all this extra savoir faire
And the person inside says nobody’s home, so your own worst enemy peeks inside
Secondly, I’ve got an extended version of my essay “How to Be Fifteen,” about adolescence, music, and mid-90s America.
How To Be Fifteen (and a Half)
The primal conflict underlying an American highschooler’s life is the fact that you are old enough to be into rock music and too young to actually go to any concerts. Not only is fifteen too young to drive, but even if you got to a show you’d run into the fairly fundamental problem that most of them have age restrictions.
Instead the fifteen year old’s musical life is constrained by odd tendencies. Tracking down individual songs one wants is a months-long production in the pre-Napster days. The most reliable tactic is to call in requests to your local college radio station and to tape songs you want off the air, but this has mixed results at best. An attempt to get a copy of “Son of a Preacher Man” is met with a DJ apologetically being unable to find it and playing Cypress Hill’s “Hits From the Bong” instead. “Stairway to Heaven” is met with the DJ laughing and hanging up on you. Other times you strike unexpected gold – a request for They Might Be Giants comes at the end of a DJ’s set and the next DJ fails to show, resulting in the DJ just putting their promo-only Live!! New York City 10/14/94 on to play and walking out of the studio. The whole disc is yours. You have ascended to godhood, save for a cut in the midst of “The Statue Got Me High” as the tape runs out and you have to flip it.
This is, for some time, your only available access to a TMBG concert. New TMBG is, in general, a rare and wondrous treat. The long wait between your discovery of the band in the summer of 1995 and the release of Factory Showroom a year later is rough, to say the least. But a live show? That’s the holy grail. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of them – the band plays Connecticut four times in 1996 alone. It’s just that forty-five minutes away might as well be in Detroit at fifteen.
But it’s 1997 when you hit proper pay dirt, somehow convincing your mother to take you to a show an hour away in Poughkeepsie. The ritual of a concert is an oddly foreign thing. Opening acts are a thing you only know about from the Internet. The show has two. The first, Lincoln, are pleasant, their debt to the headliners extending well beyond their name which, in a fannish myopia, you assume to be a direct reference to They Might Be Giants’ second (and self-evidently best) album. Next are The Bogmen, who, clearly let down by the soundcheck, result in a decade of your mother complaining about the godawful noise.
And then are the Johns. They are, of course, the one band that there are no real problems having your mother take you to a show of. They Might Be Giants are, in the end, your band of choice precisely because they sidestep the obligation to be cool. Your bedtime shot to hell, you flit around the venue on pure adrenaline, up to the balcony where your mother sits, occasionally hiding her irritation, back down to the edges of the main floor. You are decked out in a home-made Flood t-shirt printed up with iron-on decals and some bitchin’ WordArt courtesy of Microsoft and a flannel over shirt comprised of mismatched plaids stitched together like a quilt. You like the shirt because it reminds you of the coat Colin Baker wore as Doctor Who in the mid-80s. You do not have even an iota of doubt or skepticism as to the sartorial wisdom of this ensemble.
Hindsight reveals it as the Severe Tire Damage tour, but for you it’s a wondrous medley of oddities. “Doctor Worm,” “I Am Not Your Broom,” and “Older” are not well-worn oddities but astonishing wonders to fall in love with instantly. Mixing Ace of Base into a medley with “Particle Man” is nothing short of a visionary, religious experience. You get both “Shoehorn With Teeth” (complete with rarely used but terribly prominent glockenspiel) and “Lie Still, Little Bottle” (complete with stick). You have no ability whatsoever to comprehend the possibility that this is not the single most amazing thing ever to happen in the history of humanity.
There are things you do not understand. Something called a mosh pit forms in the immediate vicinity of the stage. You have read about this controversy on the Internet – the fact that these pits form at They Might Be Giants shows, much to the vocal irritation of the band. Their purpose is obscure – they are apparently violent, and more suitable to shows by some band called “Nirvana.” Hindsight reveals the underlying joke, the appropriation of an overtly cool genre to a self-evidently inappropriate venue. At the time it’s only a strange and cryptic lyric change in “Until My Head Falls Off” to make the line “I see a broken figure silhouetted on the wall” about a man’s glasses being smashed, a concept as obscure and slightly alien as the lyrics to that weird Cypress Hill song the radio played when you’d asked for “Son of a Preacher Man.”
As with most of being fifteen, the experience is defined by peering across what is on the one hand clearly a small gap between you and adulthood and what is on the other unfathomably large. They Might Be Giants exist somewhere in that gap, but on the approachable side – a distance one can step across with some comfort. They can be collected and obsessed over within the safe confines of your inherent geekiness. In many ways that’s what the live show is – a checking off of a bit of your teenage bucket list. The music is good, and you go hoarse singing along with it all, but that’s only part of the point. You’re here, staring down off the balcony at a future you don’t quite understand, but want terribly.
It takes three cycles of laundry to wash the stench of cigarettes and cheap beer out of your favorite flannel.
You never see a better concert in your life.
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