Swinging Modern Sounds #31: Reunion Fever


Like other people who once had a childhood, I sometimes give in to fits of longing for the music I cared most about when young. In particular, I give in to reunion fever. Who among us would not be inclined to hear a lost studio recording by the Beatles? Who among us would not wish for just one more gig by the Sex Pistols during the period when they were at the peak of their powers? One more album by Funkadelic, prior to the death of Eddie Hazel? Pere Ubu in the ’78-’79 lineup with Allen Ravenstine on synthesizer? The Kinks featuring both Ray and Dave? Big Star during the period when Chris Bell and Alex Chilton were speaking again? Or: a day on which Morissey and Johnny Marr reconcile! Roxy Music plays again with Brian Eno! The Incredible String Band, from back when they were young, beautiful, astral projectionists! The original Modern Lovers, featuring Jerry Harrison and Ernie Brooks and Dave Robinson! The Supremes, back from destitution and repeated trips to rehab! Who would not want these things? Who would not want additional sunsets in late summer, when the air is finally cool again, and there is that slightly creepy feeling that hurricanes are massing out there? Who would not want again the last day of school? Who would not want again the smell of lilacs, the waving away of a few honey bees?

I suspect, in music, this wish doesn’t have that much to do with the music, at least not at first, but then the reunion happens, and we have all that luggage to contend with, from an era of luggage without casters. We fall prey to the second thoughts, the resistance to reunion. Which is why, during that brief Sex Pistols reunion, during the Filthy Lucre tour of 1996, John Lydon used to say: “We’re fat! We’re forty! Get used to it!” Because, when so much time has gone by, the musicians are not the musicians in question, and their motives can justifiably be questioned, and they may not be able to write anymore (c.f., Sex Pistols, above), and they may detest each other (see LoudQuietLoud, the documentary about the Pixies reunion tour), or they may not give a shit (Pavement, arguably). There are many reason to be suspicious about reunions, but does that make us desire the reunion any less? In fact, is our suspicion not a manifestation of our certainty that we do want them, if only to evaluate what happened then and what’s happening now? If only to grapple with time, avenger and revelator?

Yes, for me there have been a few reunions in recent years that have genuinely seduced me, against my will. I’ll admit it: the reunion of the original Gang of Four in 2004 was something that moved me, and I bought Return the Gift, a nicely perverse re-recording (and a re-re-recording, if you also bought the remix album) of songs that had already been perfected once. Likewise, I really admired the Rocket From the Tombs re-recording of their earlier “hits,” called Rocket Redux (2004), which, I think, was actually better than the very obscure original recordings in some ways. In 1995, I went to see the lineup of Big Star that included members of the Posies. And: I watched the footage of Pink Floyd from the recent LiveAid 2008 show, because I felt certain it would never happen again, and I was right. I am probably one of the few people who listened closely to Endless Wire, by the never-quite-retired Who. I have seen The Pogues play on or around St. Patrick’s Day twice in the last five years.

Now, let’s get the heart of the matter: the Holy Grail of reunions for me was always the Feelies. Love doesn’t even describe the relationship I had with the Feelies; I had nearly religious perceptions about their second album The Good Earth (and if you want confirmation of my level of obsession, check the introduction to my not-very-good first novel, Garden State, where the subject comes up at length). I even tried to get them to blurb my work, dogged them with fandom, interviewed them once, and generally have taken every opportunity to assert the breadth of my Feelies-related knowledge in public, sometimes in a way I regretted afterward. One’s relentless obsessions are sometimes embarrassing to behold.

Frankly, I never expected them to reunite, because I assumed that Bill Million’s departure to Florida, circa 1991-1992, to work at Disney World (in the computer department), represented some kind of irreparable breach among the band, which, after a change in the rhythm section between the first and second albums, had been mostly stable for seven or eight years. Without Bill, and therefore without the creative push and pull between Bill and Glenn Mercer, the singer and lead guitar player in the band, I wasn’t sure there could be a band at all, and, moreover, the period in which the Feelies had most successfully done what it was they did, the period of independent music of the middle and late eighties, was and is long gone, and so there would be no need for the Feelies. History, I think, has moved on, and it’s not just the Feelies who have been left behind by it.

I followed the travails of the various post-Feelies projects, Mercer’s bands, drummer Stan Demeski’s time in Luna, bass player Brenda Sauter’s efforts, and, excepting Luna, in no case did any of this music do much more than suggest how distant and far away and perfect the Feelies were in memory. This just seemed like one of those bands that we would never hear from again, because perfection, sometimes, should just remain perfect. In memory, this was especially my perception upon hearing Glenn Mercer’s solo album Wheels In Motion, from 2007, which has almost every member of the Feelies on it (except Bill Million), but which nonetheless doesn’t sound like the Feelies, or perhaps, it sounds exactly like the Feelies except with something missing. Something very important missing. Wheels In Motion was a good solid record that sounded a bit empty somehow, like wheels in motion that might be caught in some muddy rut. I liked the album but didn’t play it a lot.

What did they do, besides make fitful splinter recordings, in those intervening years? The question of what the Feelies did, how they filled their days, was one I asked myself a lot, because the Feelies were always from a working class place, Haledon, New Jersey, a place with a real tradition as a working class town, a place with union roots, and the people who lived there were not trust funded or relaxing around the pool. The citizens of Haledon were working. So the Feelies played, initially, on national holidays because, presumably, they all had day jobs. Bill went to work at Disney World in computers. But the rest of them were working too. So in the ten or fifteen years between when Bill left for Florida and when they opened for Sonic Youth in Brooklyn in 2008, they were doing what people from a solidly middle-class town would do: raising families, working, living lives. the Feelies are now in their later fifties, and so they have absolutely no resemblance to what you might consider rock and roll personalities (see, for example, the remarkable and splendid photograph of them in the New York Times article on their first reunion: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/01/arts/music/01feel.html?scp=2&sq=The%20Feelies&st=cse). They look like middle-aged people from New Jersey! This is much in their favor.

They reunited because they reunited. Because they weren’t doing much else musically, because what they did never surpassed the Feelies, and because they had a good offer, to open for Sonic Youth at Battery Park, and though it involved, as I understand it, Bill driving up from Florida to do the gig, they played, and one thing led to another, and soon they were reuniting on a nearly regular basis, or, at least, on holidays, as they used to do back around the time of their first album. Which means that they were playing pretty much they way they had always played for, well, about thirty years. Million and Mercer, that is, have played together for thirty years, or more. And the band that reunited, which included Million and Mercer, Stan Demeski on drums, Brenda Sauter on bass, and Dave Weckerman on percussion, has played together since 1986, or, now, for more than twenty-five years.

Of course, playing live is one thing, and making new music in the studio is something else altogether, as you will have noted from every other major band reunion. The Feelies are a great live band, a jittery, provocative, elusive live band, one that has covered enough oddball material (Wire, Brian Eno, R.E.M.) for there to be a very comprehensive bootleg consisting of just the covers. They have a deep catalogue now, in that the first two albums are nearly flawless, and the latter two (Only Life and Time For A Witness) are intermittently excellent, and so there is plenty of material, material enough to play for a few hours at the kind of tempos that people used to love back when people still really loved music (as opposed to machines simulating it). Moreover, the particular lineup of the Feelies that we are speaking of has two drummers, and the two drummers have never been quite as surprising in the studio as they are in a live setting. Dave Weckerman, the percussionist, is one of the indisputable secret weapons of the Feelies (in addition to being the lead vocalist and writer on a Feelies side-project, Yung Wu, which I believe just came out of retirement too: http://www.thefeeliesweb.com/), in that he makes the rolls and accents in the song moments of hortatory bliss, and that comes through best in the live settings. Then there is Bill Million’s rhythm guitar. The thing that the Feelies perfected, in their outsider-artist way, was a particular attitude about strumming. Excepting the strumming of the Velvet Underground, which is an obvious source for some of what the Feelies are, there are few examples of two guitarists locking together the way Million and Mercer do (though I can think of one other band that strums as well: the Wedding Present), with the particular emphasis on a very clean electric guitar sound. Million and Mercer seem to finish one other’s ideas about rhythm guitar, and they manage to do it while sitting in tandem in the drum section where there’s room for the treble in the guitar parts because of the absence of too many cluttersome high-hat parts or ride cymbals. The strumming and the rolls and fills work together, and the guitars have room to lock together, and the drums lock together, and it’s like a very well-oiled device.

And: I haven’t even gotten to Brenda Sauter. To my way of thinking, Brenda Sauter is one of the very best bass players in American rock and roll. Whereas Kim Deal has made a virtue out her totally unsyncopated eighth notes, Sauter instead migrates toward melodic fills on the bass, often up the neck where they can really be heard, flights of melodic fancy that don’t relentlessly end up on the root notes or the tonic fifth, but which perform a lead function during the verses, when Million and Mercer are often involved with the relationship between the rhythm guitar parts. Sauter is sort of the Peter Hook of American indie rock, which is to say a great thinker about melody, and the band would be much less without her.

All of this to say, in a live setting, where the Feelies push the tempos a bit, toward punk rock haste, the band appears to have a great many remarkable strengths: a stunningly good rhythm section in Demeski (a light, but exacting drummer with a perfect timekeeper’s sensibility) and Weckerman, and Sauter’s melodic bass lines, and the spooky twinning of guitar parts between Million and Mercer. You can only get this, I suspect, from playing together a lot for a really long time, and by avoiding diluting the band sound by going far afield. The Feelies have done one thing really well—they have played postpunk, and have included in it a great many early rock and roll influences, and they have done it relentlessly and refined it and given everything to it one band can give. They are lifers.

But that doesn’t mean they should be able to write again! Writing is where these frail attempts to repair the ravages, the disaffiliations, of time, usually fail. What to make of the recent Gang of Four album, e.g., Content? When I interviewed Dave Allen, the original bassist for the band, who, with Hugo Ball, was one very central reason the early Gang of Four also had such a remarkable band identity, he said he was never sure that writing again, after the reformed band has toured for a couple of years, was something that the world wanted from Gang of Four, and while the resulting album has some really strong compositions and sounds superficially like the band called Gang of Four, by virtue of the singing, it’s hard for me to think of it in the same terms that I think of the band that made “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time.” The retirement of the original rhythm section has made the band something quite different from what it was.

The same is true of Endless Wire, the aforementioned album by “The Who,” a collaboration that has Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey in it, but which is not a band, exactly (Townshend played nearly the entirety of the thing himself), and which certainly lacks, without Keith Moon and John Entwistle, most of the things that made The Who distinctive in the first instance. There are some very interesting songs on Endless Wire, if you set aside Pete Townshend’s conceptual apparatus, which always feels de trop, and excessive. But it’s not The Who! Nor could it be!

For these reasons, there was plenty of reason to suspect that Here Before, the new album by the Feelies (released not long ago on Bar/None Records), would be a record that would not provide complete delight to the devoted, nearly religious Feelies listener, such as myself. In fact, I was afraid to listen to it. Too much has happened to me, as far as the Feelies go, too many days listening to the albums by myself trying to figure out what happened, too many days teasing interpretations from completely oblique lyrics, too many days trying to fathom why songs that are so easy in terms of chords are so hard to duplicate, too much. Too many projections of my own struggle onto something, so that I feel, erroneously, like I have partial ownership. It’s so rare, these days, that I have that perception at all, that partial ownership perception. Nowadays, if I like back-to-back albums by someone, it’s nearly a miracle, much less five or ten or twenty years of believing in a musician or a band. And it seems, and this is perhaps one of the implications of reunion fever, you have to have partial ownership, or the illusion of partial ownership. Such was my feeling, and to such an alarming degree, that I was afraid to listen to the Feelies album. Afraid! I didn’t want it to suck! I didn’t want it to be merely good! I wanted it to be unimpeachably great! I wanted it to be a genuine contribution to what makes the Feelies great in the first place! I wanted it to be the Feelies, but with a certain grizzled middle-aged thing! A slightly uglier version of the Feelies, possessed of certain hard-won truths that one associates with bodies in decay! I wanted it to be somewhat balding, a little fat, covered in wrinkles, and desperate to tell! I wanted it to seethe with the foreknowledge of decrepitude and death! And to do that while preserving the tempos and the jittery, intense qualities of the Feelies, the ones that they first concocted when they were in their early twenties! In short, I wanted an album that was impossible, that couldn’t be made by anyone, and which especially couldn’t be made by older guys who all have kids and jobs and who didn’t even have a record label anymore, such that they would have to make this one for, you know, $8000 or something. In two weeks’ time. Impossible! Can’t be done! What is likely in this case but total disappointment! Disappointment is the norm, it’s to be expected, it’s the air that you breathe!

And yet, here it was, arriving in the mail, and I played it in the car first, as one ought, and the first track, “Nobody Knows,” does, in fact, start exactly like a Feelies song, in particular a Feelies song from the Good Earth period, with some robust acoustic guitar playing, probably played by Bill Million, and all the hallmarks are there, the extra percussion, the very elegant drum fills, the beautiful melodic bass playing, the Glenn Mercer lyrics, which have the same number of stresses almost all the time, “Nobody knows/nobody says/anything really/that hasn’t been said/well, you never know/how it’s gonna/no one ever knows/how it’s gonna go.” The words mean almost nothing, is what I thought at first, and if this were 1986, and we were playing this for the first time, the vocals would have been mixed way back, the way Peter Buck mixed them back on The Good Earth, the way Bob Mould always mixed his vocals back on the middle period Hüsker Dü albums, so that you almost couldn’t hear a word of it. I was a little thrown by the lyrics at first, or by the fact that Mercer’s voice, not in the least worn by the years, was up front where you could evaluate the lyrics, which, for a singer who wrote the line “I don’t talk much because it gets in the way,” are perhaps not in the category of things over which one should spend too much time. And yet I have. I was still thinking about them, the lyrics and the singing, though, when the guitar solo started, after the break in the song. Such a beautiful guitar solo, such a little explosion of lyricism. A guitar solo that has the virtue of not overstating its welcome. Yes, the Feelies apparently write their guitar solos out ahead of time, which is maybe what you have to do when you only have two weeks to record the album, but they are no less beautiful, these solos, for being written ahead of time. And maybe this is a class thing—bands who have the luxury of staying in the studio for months, for writing and editing and comping solos in the studio, are the people who are perhaps getting paid for being in the studio. Whereas bands who have day jobs, and who have something to prove—e.g., that it is possible to come back from the dead—don’t have the time to write a guitar solo at great length in the studio, so they make sure they have a solo.

The subsequent songs, the songs after “Nobody Knows,” especially “Should Be Gone,” with that great backing vocal choir, which I imagine consists of Brenda and Bill Million, are all consistent with the Feelies as we know them, with certain Feelies-esque gestures, like e-bow, a guitar effect they have always favored, tiny bits of slide, heavily strummed passages that are coincident with punk while nonetheless sounding delicate somehow, as in “When You Know,” and this would perhaps be a reason to resist the album, though the double bind of the reunion is that the band both wants to sound exactly like itself and not be repetitious, and this bind has slain many a reunion, but the thing about Here Before, which is really a reunion album about making a reunion album, as you will see if you pore through Glenn Mercer’s utterly abstract and basically impenetrable lyrics, is that the more you listen, the more the album sounds like now, and sounds like a band who is completely able and ready to prove something, anything, even in their fifties, that you can come back from the dead, that the place of the dead is a place that you had best flee from while strumming with great energy. The thing about the record is that despite the occasional clumsy moment (and these I blame on the great haste with which the thing was made), such as “Bluer Skies,” which has the temerity to be a love song, this is an album that gets better and better with repeated listens, which was made by people in a room playing with each other, people in a room playing with each other for twenty-five years, who, even if they aren’t good at talking to each other (this is a logical thing to suppose in the case of reunions), nonetheless have a spooky ability to predict where one another are going and to think as unified front. Here Before improves with attention, gets better and better and better, as music does when it is really good. It is the rock album that I have listened to most consistently in the last few months. It is moving, sad, weary, adult, beautiful, relentless, gentle, outraged, old, and new.

Only time will tell (which is a Glenn Mercer sentiment—and which would fit perfectly in his tetrameter-esque lyrics) if this is a reunion that can keep being creative, especially as the band’s members move toward their sixties, but for the moment it’s the kind of reunion that you imagine and hope for when you are thinking about the bands you love making records again. Bands that I would like to hear again like: Fear of Music-era Talking Heads, or Young Marble Giants, or The Smiths (with original rhythm section, which, in fact, was kind of a great rhythm section), or Hüsker Dü, or Black Flag with Dez Cadenza, or the Bad Brains, or Suicide, and I’m leaving out all the reunions that can’t come to pass because important people are dead, and that is what a reunion is, right? It’s a way to beat back death, and so the reunions that can’t happen now because some of the principals are dead (The Minutemen), they all make the case that the ones that can happen should happen, because who is going to regret having reconciled with the people who have fallen away so distantly? Who is going to regret reconciliation? Reconciliation is what you’re supposed to do before you die, right? It’s sort of what the last song on Here Before is about: “It’s okay/it’s all right/now it’s time/to say good night/and we’re waiting/a little longer/and the feeling/getting stronger/so long/so far/how long/how far?” The groove feels a little like the kind of perfect sleek thing that Sterling Morrison and John Cale (one of the world’s great bass players, whether he liked it or not) and Mo Tucker used to find in those Lou Reed songs, and here’s it’s worth saying again how Bill Million is the glue that makes the Feelies the Feelies, because of his absolute commitment to the groove. So here it is: reconciliation. Bill Million welcomed back into the band and willing to be welcomed back in, and the result—it’s about love and endurance even when the songs aren’t about that, because the album embodies love and endurance. There’s so much that remains to be done in life on the reconciliation front, but an album like this gives you a little hope. In fact, it gives you a lot of hope.

And: perhaps we have, in the foregoing ruminations, inadvertently derived some rules for effective reunions of a rock and roll bands:

1) The maximum number of original members should be present in the reunion.

2) Or: the maximum number of members from the period of greatest effectiveness should be present for the reunion.

3) The band should be able to play, without additional players, their preeminent works.

4) The band should tour first—before heading into the studio.

5) The band should play the major works on the road, though obscurities are also reasonable.

6) After touring, the band should attempt to write and then record new material with the same lineup as during the reunion tour.

7) The reunion should not be concerned with what is happening now, as much as it should be concerned with what was happening then.

8) The new material doesn’t need to sound exactly like the old material, but it should be aware of the old material.

9) The band does not need to love one another in order to conduction a reunion, but the band should be aware that the reunion itself is an expression of love.

10)  The reunion does not need to proceed indefinitely. Knowing when to stop a second time is as important as knowing when to stop the first time.

If you follow this template, your reunion is bound to be of interest, at least dramatically, to the audience that initially spent time with you when you were here before…

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →