I usually don’t like to listen to the same album in one day. It’s a funny little rule I follow. Even if I’m particularly into a record and listen to it every day, I still like to let the listening experience sink in for a night. Otherwise it’s like over-eating at a great meal. (Which, ironically, I do at almost every dinnertime.)
But this Labor Day Weekend I wound up listening to the same album twice in one day on two different occasions. I realize this isn’t earth-shattering, stop-the-presses kind of news for anyone else, but for me it’s a noteworthy aberration.
The two albums are The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here we Come and Nirvana’s Nevermind.
First we played the Nirvana record on my i-Pod during about a 30-mile stretch of Highway 12 in Washington, heading west from Centralia where we’d exited off Interstate 5. This was on Friday, late in the 90-plus-degree afternoon.
If you haven’t guessed already, the occasion for playing Nevermind was that we were headed toward Aberdeen, Kurt Cobain’s hometown, on the way to Lake Quinault near Olympic National Park for our friends Becca and Eric's wedding. Neither Valarie nor I had been to Aberdeen before, and even though it sounds corny and obvious to play Nirvana at such a time, we had a sincere desire to think about the place where Cobain grew up with his music as the soundtrack.
The only problem was, we got a little too hasty about putting the record on. We were on the last song, “Something In The Way” (not including the unlisted song that plays after 13-ish minutes of silence), as we entered town. I could tell, though, that Valarie wanted to start the album again, as she knew I hate listening to the same record or song twice in a row. But luckily I was willing to temporarily suspend the rule, because it made for a moving, contemplated experience. She made a squeal when I gave the go-ahead for a replay
Aberdeen is a fishing and logging town, and traditionally has been pretty blue-collar and somewhat depressed. The first thing we found, however, was a thriving mini-mall of chain stores and a Taco Bell across the street. Like so many cities and towns, Aberdeen seems to have recovered with an influx of new development and retail options, but to an extent seems to have sold a bit of its soul in the process. Gritty old Aberdeen must have depressed Kurt Cobain, or at least added to the challenge of inheriting the DNA of a suicide and depression-prone family. But I think he’d have found just as much to be depressed about in the ubiquity and unsightliness inherent to sea-of-asphalt strip malls and Everywhere, USA chain stores that have invaded Aberdeen.
Nevermind sounded as fucking insanely brilliant as ever on both listens. Valarie cites “Territorial Pissing” as her favorite song, while I’m most partial to “On a Plain” and “Drain You”. But I think there’s not anything close to a bad song on that album. At the time Nirvana was popular, a few of my friends argued for the superiority of Nirvana’s debut album on the indie label Sub-Pop, Bleach. But I never took to it. Bleach seemed to draw more from metal, whereas Nevermind seemed, while wholly original, also more punk influenced, like a polished version of Sonic Youth. No, Nevermind is definitely the masterpiece here, I think, even if that’s a more obvious choice. I could say so much more about Cobain’s suicide and my feelings about it, but I hesitate to open that Pandora’s Box. (Short answer: compassion, not condemnation).
Incidentally, upon entering Aberdeen we knew to look for the town's entry sign that reads "Come As You Are". I'd thought this was a tribute to Cobain, but it turns out the sign predates the Nirvana song of the same name. Apparently the song's title was a nod to the town's sign. "Come As You Are" was also the first Nirvana song I really became a big fan of. I hadn't fallen for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" when it was released as a single, although I've since come to appreciate its cataclysmic power. But I wound up liking all the other songs that were released at the time anyway.
On to the other record: As a high school student in a small town during the mid-to-late 1980s, I didn’t even know who The Smiths were. Unless you count the time when a couple girls in my French class wrote the band’s name on the chalkboard. But that doesn't really constitute knowing a band.
By happenstance, I heard the band’s last album, Strangeways, Here We Come, a few years later in 1990 while in college at NYU. It was playing on the PA system in a darkened screening room at the Angelica Film Center on Houston Street in New York. I was waiting for a midnight screening of David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. This was freshman year, and I remember my narcoleptic roommate James was with me. James had been a Smiths fan and encouraged me to get the album when I expressed interest. My more prevalant memory of James, however, is of him sitting in the closet in the middle of the night, night after night, crying into the telephone to his girlfriend while I tried to sleep. He was homesick and only lasted one semester. But I have him to thank for my buying Strangeways.
Obviously I was struck by Morrissey’s unique crooner-esque voice, dressed in the guitar-pop instrumentation of Johnny Mar and company. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was the last Smiths album, recorded three years earlier in 1987. It has a less traditional array of instruments (xylophone, synthesizer) than the band’s more jangly, guitar-oriented previous albums, such as The Queen Is Dead, Louder Than Bombs and Meat Is Murder. Strangeways is a bit glossier and majestic, which I think suits Morrissey’s morose lyrics.
It’s funny how sometimes one owns an album for years, liking it alright but listening to it rather seldomly, and then one day one suddenly wants to hear it all the time. According to my i-Tunes stats, I’ve listened to Strangeways something like eight times in the last two weeks. I've probably only listened to it about ten times in the sixteen years I've owned the record. (It's actually a CD, of course, but I've never taken to using that term.)
We first listened to the album in the car, driving home from our weekend in Lake Quinault. Aberdeen was the setting for this one too, at least at the beginning. I remember re-starting the first song, “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” after pulling out of a Chevron station near the Wishkah River, which was in progress when I decided to pull over. Valarie and I briefly imagined similarities and the degrees of separation between Morrissey and Cobain. (They both were pretty depressed and they both became pals with Michael Stipe.)
I listened to the album again later that afternoon, while surfing the Internet at home. At first I was just going to listen to “Death of a Disco Dancer”, which is my favorite song on the album along with the aforementioned “Rush and a Push”. But then I kept listening to the end and backed around at the beginning to hear the ones at the beginning before “Disco Dancer”.
The cover photo of Strangeways is of James Dean in the movie East of Eden. (Dean was a hero of Morrissey’s.) The album isn’t generally considered The Smiths’ best—that honor generally seems to go to The Queen Is Dead or their eponymous first album. But I read on one online music site that both Morrissey and Marr consider Strangeways their favorite. At least they can agree on something.
Meanwhile, for the last few weeks Marr has reportedly been here in Portland producing a Modest Mouse album. It’s almost 20 years since the band broke up, and aside from a few appearances with The The and Electronic, Marr hasn’t recorded much since. Still, I can’t help but imagine him strumming his guitar and looking out at the same horizon.