Monday, October 15, 2012

Essay: You Forgot It In Yourself

You Forgot It Yourself

[Caveat: This is, no doubt, a variation on the theme of my Nevermind essay, but I suppose I remain intrigued by the disjunction between the neatness of these noteworthy anniversaries and the ambling randomness of our actual lived experience. Like most albums that are important to me, I don't listen to this that often. So, if nothing else, it's nice to have a reason to revisit it, and you probably should too, today.

Ten years ago today — October 15, 2002 — Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It In People was released. I did not know this at the time.


As it turned out, I did head downtown to buy a new release from a revered local group that day, but it was The Sadies' Stories Often Told. But in a sign of where my head was at in those days, I was more excited with an impulse (or, Impulse!) buy, a John Coltrane box setthat was a big deal to me.1

Anyway, I know I first heard of BSS not long after the album came out, as YFIIP did garner good reviews in the local press. But it wasn't 'til I saw it I saw it popping up on year-end lists that I resolved to buy it. In fact, I purchased my copy on January 22, 2003 — which implies it was probably fresh in mind from seeing it in the Eye Weekly critics poll, where it placed a respectable 15th, not bad for a local indie album.

In fact, by that point, word-of-mouth was already building enough that the album was getting to be hard to find. After looking in a couple stores, I managed to snag the last copy from (the now-defunct) Edward's Record World at Yonge and Eglinton.2 After that, the album was hard to come by until the original Paper Bag edition was supplanted by the Arts & Crafts re-release. And soon there would be a lot of demand as the famous Pitchfork Review came out just a few weeks later.3

But to be honest, on my first listens, I wasn't all that blown away by it. In my journals at the time — and oh my, yes, I had journals at the time: in the parts of our lives where the least amount is happening to us, we have the most time to think about things — I would usually include some commentary on whatever I was listening to, and in that regard, the absence of any mention of YFIIP is striking.4 I do remember the first time I listened to the album, out for my walk on a bitterly cold winter morning. "Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl", a song for which I had no point of comparison, struck me as I was trudging past the sort of well-tended inner-suburban homes where such dramas were almost certainly taking place. I did dig "Cause = Time", which reminded me of Dinosaur Jr.: that was striking as — hard as it is to believe today — Dino Jr. was pretty-much unhip and not-particularly-all-that-much a part of the cultural conversation.

But otherwise, I filed the album away and didn't really think about it all that much for a couple months. It was only when, in the face of a mounting swell of acclaim, that my friend and co-worker J. asked to borrow the disc from me that I had another run at it... and suddenly it started to interest me.


Actually, another kind of music was occupying much more.

One morning, some months before any of this, I was walking from the bus stop to my office. I was listening to "Memphis, Egypt" — the first song on Mekons' Rock N' Roll, and one of the top twenty rock songs of all time. It's a cautionary tale, but like a lot of cautionary tales, it also makes a fairly salacious case for the very thing it's warning against. In fact, that thesis/antithesis is covered in the song's first two lines, where the invitation is followed headlong by the warning:

destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late

the battles we fought were long and hard, just not to be consumed... by rock n' roll!

I decided I was going to buy a guitar.

I was too old for this. I was hurtling towards thirty, starting far too late to ever really master it, and all the unschooled fumblings that would be endearing in a younger novice would not look so good on me. But still, the deed was done a few weeks later with the help of J., who played a bit himself.

I found a Squire Strat in cool metallic green, and we made grand plans to play together, to "jam out". In that idle, pass-the-work-day style, discussions ensued of preferable stage names and band names.5

We'd need songs, of course. J. was not only a generally competent player already, but he'd once been an English major, who would someday, maybe, finish off that novel he denied he was writing. It seemed logical that those were adequate qualifications for him to become the songwriter. And yet, nothing was forthcoming.

In a rare burst of assertive un-self-consciousness, I took matters into my own hands, more to prime the pump than anything else: I figured that once I made the point that it wasn't so tough that J. would take over. I combed through my notepads for bon mots and trenchant turns of phrase, grouping them together into lists. And on another morning that I was making that walk from the bus to the office, I started humming something, stopped in place, and wrote out my first-ever verse. The rest followed in a rush:

A few more tunes followed relatively quickly, but there were diminishing returns. I was working from the "write what you know" school but I quickly realized no-one wanted to hear that many laments about how I wanted to get laid — nor did I particularly want to ruin the particularly scant façade of worldly sophistication that I could muster at the best of times.

Still, as time went on, my fingers learned enough to propel me to the basest level of competence. Although the topic of "original material" was largely shelved, J. and I would get together and play songs back and forth every once in a while, and the way that could expose one's technical shortcomings couldn't quite overpower the delight of electrical alchemy.

Our copious theoretical discussion about having a band could have gone on forever. I can't quite say who dared whom, but in the end, I took the plunge, presenting J. with the text for a "musician wanted" ad. He made a couple adjustments, and we sent it off:

I vividly remember pulling my copy of NOW from the box on the following Thursday, and waiting 'til I got down to the subway platform to flip to the classified pages — at which point I nearly shouted in anger at whoever substituted "or" for "of".6 But, still, we nailed it otherwise.

Somewhat to my surprise, we got a handful of responses to the ad. A few of them were from guys who were clearly too competent for the likes of us, and between my efforts at lowering their expectations and dispatching my mini-manifesto7 we managed to chase most of them off.


As it turned out, there was one guy who seemed to be on the right wavelength, so J. & I arranged to meet him for a drink before heading into a show. Which would be, by chance, June 13, 2003 — the very same night that I saw Broken Social Scene live for the first time.

Their set included the songs from YFIIP blown up, magnified and re-assembled alongside a whole slew of newer songs that we'd have to wait for years to hear on album, ending with the sprawl of the band's self-proclaimed theme song, which sort of blurred and combined their best and worst traits — they seemed to have no clue and no interest in how to finish the damned thing.

But equally noteworthy was how the whole of the night was like a gateway to this surprisingly robust pre-existing world, where all the component parts of BSS had their own exciting things going on — the night opening with a series of mini-sets from Apostle of Hustle and Jason Collett and Leslie Feist, generally all of whom were rather more obscure at the time.

But seeing BSS was merely the third most astonishing thing to happen to me that day. The second most astonishing thing were Stars, who I didn't really know that well, but who totally knocked my socks off and outplayed the headliners. BSS "were also pretty good," my journal notes. "Given the gushing praise they've been getting, this could be one of those I-was-there gigs to brag about in the future."

But the show was just a show — the thing that really elated me and capped off my summary was, "we met our drummer!"

As it turned out, with life (as usual) trumping an elegant storyline, although we all seemed to get on well we never heard from the guy again. So nothing came of it, except for having taken the step.

Eventually, though, J. & I did connect with some other prospects to get out and play, renting a rehearsal space (in the far reaches of Etobicoke of all places) in Sunday-afternoon three-hour blocks. It was a bit like a succession of first dates, meeting up with strangers to check up on basic compatibility. And like first dates, only a couple seemed promising enough to bother with a second. And though it could be frustrating to try and fall into a shared headspace with strangers, it was rewarding, too, to be able to live out my Metal Box rockstar fantasies; to be actually jamming:

It was all good fun, though as time went on, I actually did less of that rather than more. Even when I was still playing a lot, I became more interested in playing by — and for — myself. I got an acoustic guitar and devoted myself to trying bang out as many songs from my holy trinity of Tom T. Hall, Lucinda Williams and Paul Westerberg as I could muster from my technical limits.


But still, I didn't really appreciate at the time how these were the first fruits of a process that I was undertaking to deliberately complicate my life a little bit, by putting me in the way of other people.

In retrospect, it was really at that point that things started changing. I wouldn't have been able to recognize it at the time, but all of this was happening just as things were shifting for me in my own life. After a few Dark Years, I was slowly starting to transform into a more social version of myself. And if I never started a band, in time I turned into someone who'd go to a lot of shows rather than someone who went to a few — an indirect result of how that first BSS show had suddenly announced that there were all these local bands, this whole local musical ecosystem. This was something I vaguely knew about but wasn't involved with — but suddenly it became something to explore, something I could really dig into.

And the fact that all of this — the album, that first live experience — was celebratory but based in the murk of doubt and confusion also fit in with the spirit I was feeling with the looming road of angst over turning thirty stretching out before me.8 To re-listen to the album now, I can hear this, hear all of this — the layers of hope, insecurity and yearning; mawkish sentimentality mixed with braggadocio; our fears about other people constantly rubbing up against our hopes about other people.9

As such, the mess-music of YFIIP — overlapping, opaque but self-situated in a hazy interpersonal web — was an apt soundtrack for the times I'd been waiting for. Part of its art was the self-invocation of its milieu, and I was waiting for something like that, too. In slow steps over the next few years, I'd move myself a little bit closer to finding my own broken social scene.

1 For the record, there is just so much beautiful stuff on this. Everyone should have this, or at least some of its component albums.

2 I must have also done a troll through the used bins while I was there, as my other purchases that day were Death in Vegas' The Contino Sessions, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's How I Long to Feel that Summer in my Heart and New Wave by The Auteurs, who I was really into at the time.

3 One thing that the Pitchfork review gets very wrong is that Broken Social Scene is, in fact, an uncommonly excellent band name, capturing in one phrase a truism about the human condition — when you mix together a collection of persons, it's going to get complicated and awkward and be on the verge of falling apart all the time. The ars vitae is in how you navigate that.

4 By contrast, there's copious evidence on my near-obsession with the Nikki Sudden reissues that were coming out right around then.

5 There were great stacks of band names considered, with preferences changing every day; but by contrast, I quickly established that my punkrock stage name would be Heraclitus Akimbo.

6 I was less angry that they also misspelled "unacknowledged" — and by this point I'm not even sure if I simply submitted it like that myself.

7 Fortunately, whatever was in the screed detailing what we were trying to achieve is lost to the mists of time. I quoted myself to my journal as saying something like "we want to decommodify our relationship to rock'n'roll by taking part in the conversation", so I can only imagine how embarrassing it would've been once I really got going.

8 All of my insecurities about turning thirty were way, way worse than the actual fact of turning thirty. I offer this as an instructional comment to those younger folks who are on their way there as much as I am now using it as an instructive mantra for myself ten years later and hurtling toward that next dreaded milestone.

9 And, by the way, Justin Peroff's drums on the album, as recorded by David Newfeld, remain fucking fantastic.

1 comment:

  1. Joe, this essay expresses many of my own feelings both of the album itself and the period in my life when it was released and how it made (makes) me feel. Enjoyable read and the download is great too. Thanks.

    Bobby B