There we were this weekend in a car hurtling along I-84 coming home through the gorge from Eastern Oregon and the long-familiar visage of Mt Hood looming before us and I was transported to a different time along about the same stretch of road many years before when I was ricocheting around in my driver's seat as Radiohead's There, There was exploding into its cathartic jam portion.
the awkward intro
But before going there, a bit of background is necessary. Radiohead played a show in my fair city of Portland for the first time in 21 years the weekend prior and I was fortunate enough to have scored me and Lady Papa Punk nosebleed seats off Craigslist.
[Papa Punk note: here I feel obliged to point out this post was originally started many months back, life happened and have finally gotten around to completing it and posting now]
In the run-up to the show, as I was re-acquainting myself with the Radiohead ouevre, it hit me like a ton of bricks that this music has essentially served as the soundtrack of the last 20 or so years of this Papa Punk life.
Now there were some handfuls of bands that were unwittingly responsible for acting as the bridge between my formative high school punk years and full on adulthood: Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Janes Addiction, Soundgarden, Pavement, Sebadoh, Yo La Tengo, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins to name just a few.
Each band in its own way helped loosen the grip of my irrational belief that the best music had to be unpopular or inaccessible, each band led me to places that challenged and expanded my musical appreciation and listening experience as they grew themselves.
These were bands that were roughly in my same age group, that sounded like they had shared some of the same teenage and musical experiences as me, and while they certainly wore those influences, they mixed in other ideas to create a more interesting and compelling sound, basically it was like the music punk rock would sound like all grown up and with a modicum of musical talent.
So what to make of this Radiohead? I don't recall when I first heard of them but it's a certainty that Creep was my first exposure to the band - and I didn't particularly think much of the song, as seems to have been the common response from many in the twenty-something-punk diaspora.
The fact that Creep was played in high rotation on the local radio shows didn't help it much and predictably I dismissed them out of hand, chalking them up as yet another one-hit wonder grunge-y band that would come and go like Bush - though admittedly Bush had some staying power spanning a couple of
terms years I suppose.
This despite the fact that in retrospect I was totally on board with the sentiment of the lyrics
What the hell am I doing here?
I don't belong here
Though I think Macy Gray rather knocked it out of the park with this cover, no?
so fucking special cover by Macy, YMMV (yorke mileage may vary)
Given this inauspicious beginning, I had little inkling of the band that Radiohead would grow into.
I didn't pay the matter of Radiohead much thought for a year or so after that, I may have nibbled tentatively around the edges of their next couple of songs like Fake Plastic Trees and admitted this erstwhile one-hit wonder had some intrigue.
In fact I distinctly remember working at my first tech start-up and borrowing CDs from a college intern so I would have some new stuff to tune into while pouring bottomless hours of my young adult life coding away at a computer. The Bends was one of the CDs I kept going back to him to borrow, I liked what I was hearing.
This was about when the single Karma Police was just out with disturbing video in tow. I figured Radiohead might just be a band that had found its legs and got the Ok Computer on CD (oh the heresy!) rather than waiting to bum a listen from a pimply face college kid.
I'm doing my best to temper my penchant for hyperbole, but honestly the first few listens were mind-altering from the moment Airbag hit my ear drums. The leap they had made from that earlier stuff to this was meteoric. In particular, Paranoid Android caught my attention, accompanied by a disturbing animated video that to this very day manages to disorient and convey a sense of sadness that I can't really put into words.
Not to mention the main character bears an uncanny resemblance to Papa Punk today, if freshly shaved and viewed from a great height with your eyes scrunched just so.
Here's something that recently occurred to me when thinking about Paranoid Android and the whole Ok Computer shooting match - I am reminded of the Subhumans (UK) with From the Cradle to the Grave.
Now just hear me out and humor me this bit of a tangent.
Both broke major ground within their respective genres in terms of musical and lyrical directions. All the different time changes, multiple musical passages strung together and interwoven in some cases - so operatic, they were like songs within songs that ultimately told a long running story about life, society and robots (well maybe not so much of that in the Subhumans) with the Subhumans painting a much heavier and darker political picture.
It is well worth your while to listen to the full From the Cradle to the Grave song (and the whole record for that matter), but if you find yourself unable to devote the 15 minutes it takes, you can pick it up at any point in the track and you'll get a sense.
very first punk rock opera?
I mean that shit came out in like 1983, concept albums were most assuredly not punk rock (with the exception of Zen Arcade) and until then the Subhumans were basically a decent radical protest brit thrash/punk band.
And then this came out with an epic song that runs the full length of side B - a whiplash-inducing rollercoaster ride through a bunch of musical twists and turns with some memorable lines conjuring up Orwellian images:
And if you're too intelligent
they'll cut you down to size
They'll praise you 'til you're happy
then they'll fill you full of lies
So ok, Ok Computer is truly a masterpiece but don't sleep on From the Cradle to the Grave, I wouldn't be surprised if Thom Yorke at the time of Computer Ok had a well-worn copy of that album lying around his flat or wherever it is that blokes live.
returning to the thread, pt I
Back to the subject at hand, it seemed like Radiohead had made the unlikely jump from mainstream to critical acclaim, with enough edginess to appeal to indie rockers and punk rockers in the early maturation stages alike, the begrudging came easier and with less rancor as the scars from a year of Creep saturation faded in the distance.
They were evolving a wall of sound that was very much their own - with liberal use of dynamics, song breaks, tempo changes, soft falsetto singing and full on Johnny Rotten snarls.
I loved this album - all of it spoke to me in a way that felt tailor-made for where I was at that time in my life, slowly burning in front of a glowing computer with only my headphones and the sounds injected into my brain to keep me human.
Given my close personal connection to that hardcore computer geek chapter in my life, it was with great pleasure that I stumbled upon this ultra-nerdy article which reveals that the new 25th anniversary edition of Computer Ok -
appropriately entitled OKNOTOK - contains a glorious easter egg.
Running those EQ'd files through a ZX Spectrum emulator, the software pops up with the names of all the band members, dating the software back to the 19th December 1996. After the introduction, all that hard work is finally rewarded with some scrolling text and a seemingly random arrangement of bloops and bleeps. It's a bizarre but very cool little Easter egg, and thanks to YouTuber OooSLAJEREKooO you can save yourself some time and check out a video of the whole thing below.
radiohead and BASIC, a match made in heaven for us nerdy punk rockers
returning to the thread, pt II
But again I find myself digressing. Where was I?
Oh yes, so I got my first chance to see Radiohead live in 98 at the Tibetan Music Festival in DC. Only I didn't. On account of lightning strikes the show had to be stopped prematurely before Radiohead and REM could play.
It turned out Radiohead made a secret appearance at the 9:30 club (the new one) and played a late set then. It wasn't that much of a secret because the rumors had made the rounds among my friends.
While it would have been very much like me to have said "fuck it, I'll never get in" before even trying, I seem to recall joining along with some friends to give it a go, then despairing at the line length and the futility of it all, then resigning with a "fuck it, I'll never get in" and going home to play the entire CD at top volume to make up for it.
Seems like everyone has that one buddy with the panache to always defy long odds and get into events like this and I'm certainly no exception. My buddy (let's just call him George) managed to make it in, lucky bastard, and got to see Radiohead at their Ok Computer finest in a small over-packed club in DC. That stands as one of my biggest music-related regrets, not placing faith in George's mojo and missing out on that incredible moment.
From this article:
That night, Radiohead played a midnight show with Pulp. "It was a magical night where it just had to happen," Rubin says. "I actually don't even know how it happened, but it did. It was crazy, absolutely crazy."
not pictured: papa punk who was sulking at home with head in hands (Photo Dustin Whitlow)
not pictured: papa punk who was sulking at home with head in hands (Photo Dustin Whitlow)
I had another chance to see Radiohead - was it a month later? a couple years later? no matter - at another outdoor venue around DC, and sure enough, Mother Nature chose not to cooperate and the show was cancelled due to inclement weather.
After the universal success of Computer Ok, the follow-up release Kid A was a bit of a shock. Radiohead had cultivated a sound and drawn a following and they could have kept churning out Computer Ok The Sequel ad nauseum and I no doubt would have kept on listening to and loving it. But instead they put out this mercurial, often subdued, record infused with electronica. The typical Fuck You follow-up release to a wildly successful record that other bands had similarly gone through - looking at you Nirvana.
Not so fast. Lurking just beneath the surface many of the same elements that made Radiohead tick were there, only wrapped in more tension and even more layers, while some of the rock and noise and fallen away it was replaced by more subtle textures and even more granularity. By turns the album was equally haunting and beautiful, seemingly impossibly so.
I mean if the opening track Everything in its Right Place doesn't swallow you up like a black hole, I don't know what to tell you.
Radiohead has managed to hold true to that trajectory of stretching their sound to reach new and different planes with each ensuing release, challenging their listeners to do the same.
Which leads us up to current times and the night of their recent Portland performance, when I was reminded of the power of Radiohead to move me and connect me with a distinct moment in time and place.
As the first notes of the understated bass line of There, There hit me - and it took a few seconds to recognize where they were going with it - I was transported back to I-84, where I began this meandering little post. Transported to a point in time during an epic journey, when me and Lady Papa Punk were driving across the country seeking a new life in Portland.
Needless to say, it had been a stressful road trip.
On Day 1, we had gotten off to a late start due to me losing my keys right as we were about to head out.
Aboard my car were two distraught cats in a nearly non-stop catatonic state interrupted by moments of consciousness during which they summoned up the wherewithal to relieve themselves freely in the car via any of their three possible options.
That first night we got caught in a torrential downpour as we white-knuckled our way over and around the hills of WV. I felt a little like a modern day Noah, only too lazy to gather anything but a pair of cats.
The next morning we turned our hotel room upside down looking for one cat, Inkee, only to discover she had holed up in an heartbreakingly inaccessible nook in the box spring.
As I was loading the car to head out I saw a group of maids distracted by something in the hall and sure enough it was the other cat Biscuit strolling through, thumbing his nose at the no-pet policy which his rebel owners had chosen to defy on his behalf.
And this was just the first 24 hours of travel!
So long story short, we were quite road-weary and mentally fatigued heading into Oregon, and the fear, uncertainty and doubt were beginning to take powerful hold - "what the hell am I doing here?" indeed.
As we rolled through the somewhat barren and dusty desert highland of eastern OR, the magnitude of our decision was starting to sink in. Instinctively, to calm my nerves, I reached for Hail to the Thief which had come out almost a year ago to the day and by this point was like an old friend to me.
We were dreamers, were we not?
Are you such a dreamer,
To put the world to rights?
I'll stay home forever,
Where 2 and 2 always makes a 5
While I had an almost unnatural fondness for Kid A and Amnesiac in their own rights, I had become genuinely addicted to Hail to the Thief on the strength of it's re-introduction of some harder edges into the more nuanced textures that comprised the signature Radiohead wall of sound.
I remember getting my first glimpse of the snow-covered Hershey kiss of a mountain of Mt Hood. The desert was starting to look more interesting as we began following the groove along the Columbia Gorge and the mountain got more pronounced - and at this time There, There came on.
It all hit me at that moment - there was no going back and a new world was waiting for me. We had just about made it and this new place was exciting and a little dangerous and at the crucial denouement of that song, I was flying out of my seat, slapping on the steering wheel, and shouting along.
cued to just before the climactic point of the song
picture me going nuts when it hits
We are accidents
Same thing as I did the other night from my nosebleed vantage point in the crowded upper sections of the Moda Center arena when the band reached that cathartic point in There, There.
That night was validation that Radiohead still has the power to make me lose my mind, and that's a damn good thing.