(A word of warning – the word count on this post is in the 2,500 range, so I’d get comfortable or quit now – don’t worry, I won’t be offended, you must have better ways to spend your time anyways)
Ironically, despite being an excellent student in my youth, I was a very slow learner in pretty much everything that I wasn’t graded on. For example, it took me well into my junior high years before I learned that girls were worthy of my undivided thought and attention, something that the rest of my adolescent male peers had come to grips with much earlier than me.
I still remember a time in grade six when a female classmate of mine – who was one of the biggest catches on the schoolyard, according to those in the know – was putting out the most obvious of signals that she was interested in yours truly. Notes, girlfriend gossip, pre-adolescent flirting…the works. And me? I might have been interested, but on my to-do list, she was tragically low, buried somewhere with Pogs and making it to the bus on time. I just sat back and figured that if she wanted to “go out” or something, she’d let me know.
Suffice to say, she found the attention she deserved elsewhere. If only my report card reflected romantic endeavors, maybe I would have tried a little harder…
That I’ve begun a post about music by talking about romance is hardly coincidence. As long as there has been music, topic numero uno has been romance in all its forms, from eternal love to spontaneous sex and all else in between.
Not unlike early dabblings into the world of love and lust, a young adolescent’s first forays into the world of music are often embarrassing and foolhardy. They’re the mistakes that you confess to friends over a bottle of wine when you’re 24 and can finally laugh about the absurdity of your younger self.
And regardless of whether or not it was reciprocated – be it a hopeless crush or an easy fling – everyone remembers their first love, that moment when they were smacked upside the head with epiphany and realized that this, THIS was worth not only their valuable time, but every waking moment of their existence. And it applies equally to the opposite gender as it does to the music that played while you tried to advance to the next base with them.
If you’re looking for a story about my early forays into the world of romance, you won’t find it here (even I can’t muster up the self-indulgence and hyperbole to make my romantic past exciting). No, this is the story about how I fell in love with rock and roll, and my eight-year (musical) affair with a scruffy musician by the name of Matthew.
Blind, blind ignorance – that’s how it began and how it stayed for far too long. My schoolyard companions were increasingly spending their time making out with girls while listening to Weezer and Guns and Roses and I didn’t understand any of it. It wasn’t that I disliked music, just as I didn’t dislike girls. I just didn’t have a reason to care.
I watched MuchMusic. I listened to the radio. I had tapes in the car that I would play on roadtrips, in particular to appease my inexplicable childhood interest in Bryan Adams. But nothing stuck, nothing was important enough to be anything more than background noise.
It was the school year that straddled 1997 and 1998. I was in grade nine at Tantallon Junior High School and, for the most part, disliking it (although there’s a good chance this could be hindsight – unlike with most things, I think my memories of the pitfalls of junior high are actually exaggerated and much worse than they actually were). It was a time to begin to learn algebra, to fixate awkwardly on girls who I didn’t have a hope in hell with and to fundraise like it was going out of style to make the class trip to Toronto and Ottawa in the spring.
It was in Toronto at the Eaton Centre that I explored my first HMV (at least, I think it was an HMV – this part is a little hazy). We didn’t have HMVs in Nova Scotia at this time, so it was a bit of a novelty. We visisted the Eaton Centre twice that week and each time I bought an album, the first being a cassette copy of The Verve’s Urban Hymns (this was the summer of “Bittersweet Symphony,” after all), which I still to this day have buried in my house somewhere.
The other was a CD called Underdogs by a Vancouver foursome known as the Matthew Good Band.
I didn’t actually have a discman with me on the trip – only the rich kids had those at this point – but I was able to mooch one off a rich kid on the train ride home and listened to Underdogs a good five or six times, start-to-finish.
The single “Everything is Automatic” was released to radio that previous fall, and I remembered liking it. I also recall seeing the video for “Indestructable” in the hotel room in Toronto. Yet I’m still not sure what it was that made me make the leap from “this isn’t bad” to “I should purchase this musical product.” Maybe it was the fact that the heads of the prom couple were cut off on the cover.
But that’s irrelevant. What matters is that to a stupid 15-year-old ready to have the world before him, Underdogs was a revelation. “Apparitions” may have been the breakthrough single, but I confess that I barely noticed it until it hit radio. For me, it was the rockers like “Invasion 1” and “Deep Six” that floored me. Listening to the album as I write this, Underdogs still explodes with energy even if the songs themselves have long since been eclipsed by other works in Good’s catalogue. And while I ignored them at first, today it’s the ballads that hold up the best, from the haunting simplicity of “The Inescapable Us” to the epic conclusion of “Change of Season.”
Shortly afterwards, I tracked down copies of MGB’s first two releases – the Raygun EP and Last of the Ghetto Astronauts, a title which I once thought brilliant and now find more than a little stupid – and listened to them over and over again.
I had found my gateway drug.
Calum MacLeod remains one of my best friends – if you’re reading this Calum, let me know this week what’s up with getting to see Snakes on a Plane – and our friendship today is based on similar pretenses as it was at the beginning: what we’re listening to. It was the fall of 1999, I was in grade 11 and MGB had just released their first album on Universal, Beautiful Midnight.
I had been anticipating the album for months. The first time the video for “Hello Time Bomb” was played on MuchMusic, I not only taped it so I could watch it over and over again, but taped the audio feed so I could listen to the song on my walkman over and over again. The album was pretty spectacular to my ears, a huge step forward for Good’s songwriting (while Underdogs perhaps has the better sound, Beautiful Midnight contains the best material of any MGB album).
Turns out that Calum, who was in my drama class, was a fan as well. This led to us actually camping out in Mic Mac Mall for an entire day for a chance to meet the band at an autograph session. I’m not sure whether we thought that it was going to be super-busy or what, but there we were, 7:30 in the morning sitting outside the HMV with mall security giving us funny looks. We were officially the first people in line (although we were not the first to meet the band – some guy won a radio contest and got to skip to the front). After I got my locker poster signed – yes, I made myself a MGB locker poster, shut up – I hung around the store for a while and got to chat with the non-Matthew members of the band (Matthew, as was usual for those days was sick as a dog and was barely able to make the interview session).
The band played in Halifax that night. As an underager, I couldn’t go. I would never see the Matthew Good Band live, and would not see Matthew Good play until amost three years later.
If MGB introduced me to the wonderful possibilities of rock and roll, they also introduced me to the wonderful possibilities of the Internet. The original MGB message board and website was run by a kid named Lenny from Vancouver (he actually plays the bouncer in the “Rico” video). Lenny is one of countless people that I have conversed with, chatted with and bonded with through the internet because of the Matthew Good Band (and most of whom I’ve never actually met in person, Andrew from Pheonix being the exception. He traveled so much that I think everyone in the community had met Andrew at one point or another).
When I joined circa mid-1999, the online MGB community was still rather small and insular. When I gave up participating, it had grown massive and unwieldy, with most of the original founders long since disappearing. If I had the time or the interest, I could devote an entire post as long as this one to the internal drama the message boards provided, from the secret splinter boards like the Liberation Front, to the flamers and know-it-alls, to the times when Matthew himself would post, then get frustrated, then shut the website down, only to have it back up and watch the process repeat time and time again.
The height of the absurdity, and my own personal contribution to it, was Monkey Wars, a six-part serial of Matthew Good fan-fiction that I wrote and was posted on Michael Cook’s “Subversive Literature” fansite. The story was a hack amalgam of every post-apocalyptic movie I had ever seen, with Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man being the most obvious influences. In my typical self-indulgence, I was the protagonist who believes he is the last man on an earth that has been taken over by bloodthirsty alien apes (I’m not making this up – that’s how the plot actually went). I was then rescued by the Matthew Good Band, who were leading a resistance against the apes with a band of survivors who also all happened to be members of the online community. (Michael, who I still keep in touch with to this day, actually contributed a two-part interlude that delved into his own character’s backstory and was infinitely more accomplished than my own pieces.)
In hindsight, as I re-read Monkey Wars – yes, I have all of it saved and no, you can’t read it – I’m amazed by how fully I committed myself to the project. Did I really believe this was a worthwhile way to spend my time? Was this healthy? What happens if any of this ever sees the light of day again? What’s more, everyone online seemed to eat it up. Perhaps we were all demented together for a time.
Now that we’re sane, we don’t speak to each other anymore.
Over the following years, my love of the Matthew Good Band dwindled as it became shared. Other bands – Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, the Manic Street Preachers – came in and began to take up occupation in my new discman. And then there was Radiohead and OK Computer. If Matthew Good taught me that music was worth listening to, then it was OK Computer that taught me what music ultimately could be.
That’s not to say I didn’t remain a fan. To date, I have still purchased every MGB and every Matthew Good solo release (I’m a hideous loyal fan to those artists who at some point earned my praise and trust). But unlike the unquestioning fanaticism of my youth, I’ve come to see Matt’s music for what it really is: the work of an impressive songwriter who often touches greatness but rarely completely seizes it, and has yet to make a truly definitive statement to the world of music (although arguably “Apparitions” comes close).
While I’ve enjoyed them all at first listen, most of Matt’s post-Beautiful Midnight releases have been a little spotty, with a handful of spectacular tracks (“Tripoli,” “While We Were Hunting Rabbits,” “Blue Skies over Badlands”) intermixed with competent-but-unspectacular rock and roll. I’ve had the similar experience with the four times I’ve seen Matt live: two back-to-back shows on the tour prior to White Light Rock and Roll Review’s release were stunning, while another Marquee Club gig later that year and an earlier show pre-Avalanche on Citadel Hill were mediocre at best (although the last one may be more on account of the near-concussions I received from various crowdsurfers instead of the actual music).
Nowadays, Matt’s politics have become as important as his music, as the focus of his blog demonstrates. He’s recently completed a solo acoustic tour. And I still think he’s got a truly great album in him. But unlike when I was younger, I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.
The fact is that teenagers listen to music as they fall in love: completely, totally and fleetingly. With the adult world breathing down their neck, they leap at the first chance they have to actually give a damn about something, anything. They need to learn what it’s like to devote themselves to a cause, be it the winning of hearts or the losing of eardrums. And so without thought, rationality or a hint of common sense, they throw themselves at the mercy of their future hindsight and live their passions out through disregard.
Over time, the extremes become moderated and the peaks and valleys become the steady road. The girl that you once would have sang to the rooftops for becomes the one you politely ask to dinner. The car you once would have loaded with speakers and lights and accessories becomes a sensible-but-reliable sedan. And the album that you would have designed locker posters about, would have wrote online stories about, would have camped out to meet the makers of, and would have changed your life…well, it becomes the album you listen to eight years later and take or leave on its own terms.
Today, I listen to Underdogs and instead of revelation, I merely hear rock and roll. But had it never been the former, I doubt it could have ever become the latter. I suppose that’s worth something.
Watch: Matthew Good Band – “Apparitions”