I have recently – and finally – started digging into music writer Chuck Klosterman’s heavy metal manifesto/defense/apology Fargo Rock City. I’m a huge fan of Klosterman, and quite often feel that my musings are a petty, unpolished turd of an enterprise compared to this dude’s. That said, I came across a passage in Fargo Rock City that nails sentiments that power my most monumental music fandoms.
Comparing the guitar skills of Eddie Van Halen to those of Eric Clapton, Klosterman writes:
“Eddie and Eric are certainly among the greatest rock guitarists who ever lived, but for totally different reasons. Listening to Clapton is like getting a sensual massage from a woman you’ve loved for the past ten years; listening to Van Halen is like having the best sex of your life with three foxy nursing students you met at a Tastee Freez.”
Those who know me even marginally well know my two favorite artists in the world are R.E.M. and Neil Finn, of Crowded House fame. And I realize that I love them in completely different ways. To borrow Klosterman’s analogy and warp it. R.E.M. in my world is like that great, passionate love affair that burns brightly – but, inevitably, burns out. Neil Finn in my world is like that shy guy who would always hold the door and offer words of support when that other asshole dumps you – and then one day, you realize: shit, happiness was standing in front of you all along.
Let me explain.
R.E.M. infiltrated my life at age 17, and forever altered it. Klosterman sums this one up pretty nicely, too: “There was an unspoken cultural compliment to listening to Fables of the Reconstruction. The record seemed to indicate that you recognized the reality of your teenage life. You were going through the same things that Michael Stipe did, and it was helping you become a more advanced human.”
I never felt like I belonged, all throughout school. I was too shy, too smart, too out of step with fashion, too…different. And here was this band of other Southern weirdos, who celebrated their contradictions and surroundings and seemed totally comfortable in their skins. “I’m not supposed to be like this, but it’s OK.” It all sounds a bit like hokum now, but then, when I desperately needed a boost, R.E.M. were Gospel. 1994 to 1997 were three unchecked years of full-blown obsession.
But then, R.E.M.’s carefully constructed public facade began to crumble. First, their longtime manager Jefferson Holt stepped down under possibly shady circumstances. Then, devastatingly, came Bill Berry’s departure from the group a year after the release of what may be their last truly great record, 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. I remember my fury. Quitter. I remember wearing black. How could they ever replace Bill?! (Tellingly, though talents like Joey Waronker and Bill Rieflin have pounded the tubs for R.E.M. in the wake of Berry’s departure, none of them have officially been named a fourth member of the band.) While 1998’s Up was a quality first post-Berry effort, it was 2001’s lackluster Reveal that finally derailed my R.E.M. train. I’d spent my entire R.E.M. fandom celebrating them on one hand and defending them on the other, whether it was rebuking claims that Stipe’s voice sounded like a billy goat’s, shooting down rumors of Stipe liaisons with Morrissey, or standing up for “Shiny Happy People”. With Reveal, I at last encountered something to do with R.E.M. that I could not defend.
I gave this band seven YEARS.
Don’t get me wrong. As I noted in my first Noise post, I still listen to R.E.M. This year’s Collapse Into Now is their best CD since Hi-Fi. They still are a force to be reckoned with in concert. But it’s not the same. Partly because I don’t need them to tell me how to live my life, partly because it’s not as awe-inspiring anymore. We’re still in touch, but I’ve moved on.
Which brings me back to Neil Finn. I seem to always come back to Neil Finn. I first discovered Crowded House in 1987 or so, when I was 10 years old. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” became my favorite song in the world from practically my first listen (and one of the first 45s I bought with my own allowance money)…and it’s STILL my favorite song in the world. Save for a few years’ lapse around high school, I have consistently followed Mr. Finn into every and all endeavors he pursues or pursued. This is a long list. There’s Split Enz, the proto-New Wave band founded by Neil’s big brother Tim; the two albums Tim and Neil made together as the Finn Brothers; Neil’s brief solo career, yielding a near-perfect album in 1998’s Try Whistling This and a perfectly commendable one in 2001’s One Nil. And let’s not forget the Seven Worlds Collide project, where Neil collaborated with Eddie Vedder, Wilco, KT Tunstall and other notables. Coming next, Pajama Club – a group born out out jam sessions in Neil’s home studio with his wife, Sharon.
Here’s the thing: even when I was going out of my gourd for R.E.M., albums like Crowded House’s Together Alone were in equally heavy rotation in my CD player. Steady, solid, there with hooky, phenomenally tuneful pop-rock. Finn is a gifted songwriter, an energizing live entertainer, and a fascinating man to follow on Twitter. After Reveal broke my heart in ’01, One Nil was there to pick up the pieces. While the reformed Crowded House’s latter-day albums don’t hold the same place in my heart as their first four, there’s still an undeniable spark to the proceedings.
Neil even proved a bit of a matchmaker. Still a newbie to Los Angeles, I wandered into the Largo club a week before Christmas in 2002 to see Lisa Germano play…but what I really was hoping for was that Neil would show up, too, as he and Lisa worked together on/in Seven Worlds Collide. I ran into a guy named Todd at the bar who was hoping the same thing. We struck up a conversation about Neil Finn, as I’d boldly attempted to see him play at Largo a month prior – and failed miserably, but at least Neil came out on to the street and consoled us shut-outs with a rendition of “Fall At Your Feet”. More mutual music loves came to light during the evening-long conversation – including R.E.M., natch – and we made plans to hang out the next night. Close to nine years of friendship later, I can trace something like 90% of the connections I’ve made in Los Angeles to that chance meeting. Thanks, Neil.
So, what am I now? A Distiple, or a Finnatic? I suppose I’ll always be a bit of both. But while R.E.M. was the life-changer, Neil Finn appears to be the life partner. Here’s to 25 more years of fandom.
“Bittersweet Me”, from the under-rated R.E.M. album New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
“Sinner”, from Neil Finn’s first solo record Try Whistling This.
And my favorite song – hey now, hey now…