Wednesday, October 1, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 274): "LOW" (1993) Cracker

Know what? It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted about a song from the Nineties. There wasn’t a single song from the Nineties all last month. The neglect is starting to get to me. I mean, the Nineties weren’t all bad, were they?

That was when CDs took over, and before downloads did. Before iPod and mp3s. Somewhere in there came the capacity to burn copies of CDs, but that was still kinda rare, for me. Much more common were used CD stores. Here in CT, where I lived from 1994 onward, there were several. Visiting them became kind of a parent and child bonding ritual in my daughter’s teens.

One of the things we picked up was Kerosene Hat by Cracker. Cracker was the band that David Lowery formed when Camper van Beethoven broke up. I got their CDs because I liked his voice on those quirky CvB albums, particularly Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988), which was one of my favorite albums of the late Eighties. I still get a great charge from it. Cracker came along while I was in grad school and had two albums out before I even knew it. The one I got first, I think, was Golden Age (1996) the third one, which is still my favorite. But today’s song is from the second one. Unbeknownst to me, it has been named as one of the definitive Nineties songs. So why not include it if I’m really trying to resurrect the Nineties.

It’s a song I selected to start a Nineties compilation CD for Anna some time during her college years, I think. I suppose that, even without Spin magazine’s sense of the song’s significance as a moment when alternative got bigger than mainstream, I wanted the song to manifest something. What it manifested, to me, was the point at which alternative went mainstream, which is to say that Cracker was more radio friendly, in the “classic rock” sense, than CvB ever aspired to be. That’s not a criticism, really. It’s just one of the things about the Nineties, whether you’re a young-un or an aged, that all that music that I’ve spent most of these posts singing the praises of had by then become old. Classic. And the new stuff—new rock? Yeah, was like an oxymoron. Cracker, briefly, stood in that place where some others could thrive—like Wilco, like R.E.M. of the same period as Kerosene Hat, like Pearl Jam and the Pumpkins, and others riding through the hole that Nirvana rode their truck through.

So, what’s the song about? I heard it as the recognition by a dude around my age (Lowery) that a girl could make him feel like . . . well, like he felt when he was young. Lowery was 33 the year the album came out, so you see what I’m saying. I mean really young. “I’ll be with you girl / Like being low / Hey hey hey / Like being stoned.” It was as if, in their 30s, Lowery and crew were finally achieving the kind of garage band success they believed in as teens. And it was probably girls then in their teens—in the Nineties—that were inspiring (and buying) the song. For me, the girl in question was my own kid. It was a high, being dad to a youngster, let's be clear on that. And that’s part of what I was passing on to Anna as well when she came of age. We had fun when we were together (and I just danced with abandon at her wedding, so there). And this track also passes on the fact that alternative hit a classic rock midlife crisis that produced some good stuff because that anxiety is there, that edge, that sense of riding a wave that is going to smash you into a wall sooner or later. Call it fate or age or that moment of “The fruit is rusting on the vines.” And rust never sleeps.

I remember listening to Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” around 1996 and hearing it as both a throwback—to Dylan’s Guthrie era—as well as a prescient view of the underside of the Clinton boom. Because the money and fun was draining from lots of things, and, by the standards even of the hard-up Seventies, the Nineties felt a bit threadbare and desperate. And that’s what I liked about the sound Cracker created 1993-96: this was not rock star stuff—even if Kerosene Hat did almost go platinum (a million sold)—but much more attenuated somehow. If only because of all of us trading in and re-buying used copies, passing that same joint around and around. “Hey, don’t you want to go down / Like some junkie cosmonaut?” It’s a druggie song—but even that feels nostalgic (there’s a song on there called “Nostalgia” and when they end with the Dead’s “Loser,” well . . . ).  And here is “Low” being performed on Conan O’Brien. Look how young he is!

What I have a hard time imagining is how I would’ve listened to this stuff if I were a kid in college at the time. At that age it would be possible, I suppose, to let the song’s drugginess be a vicarious experience, but it seems to me music perfectly suited to the druggy days of the Seventies. So there’s sort of a time warp effect when I listen to the album, not just “Low.” Though I'm not for a minute saying that the Nineties weren't druggy. And that's what Cracker's for, it seems to me.

And that opening sally is good enough for the gusts of desire that come and go in the midst of the Stone: “Sometimes I want to take you down / Sometimes I want to get you low / Brush your hair back from your eyes / Take you down, let your river flow.” That’s about as close to “Let It Bleed” territory as these guys will get (well, except for “Sweet Thistle Pie” and “I'm a Little Rocket Ship”). Because, in a sense, they’re rock poseurs, deliberately spoofing on the familiar ruses of the rock ethos. Which is something that makes me like the song, makes me able to accept it. It’s not completely sincere about its classic rock status. It’s teasing the genre but with a competent grasp of what riff rock was all about. It’s just that Lowery is too “aware,” too alt, simply to go for it. And I respect that. And anyway . . . here’s to being 30-35.

Green, green are her eyes / A million miles, a million miles


No comments: