Not too long ago I woke up and for no particular reason immediately started humming the coda of a fairly unremarked upon Les Savy Fav song called “Pills.” It’s a real humdinger. I think it is about love, or at least something close to love, like obsession or sex.
“Pills” sits towards the end of an album I hold dear to my heart. Go Forth dropped a mere month after 9/11 (though I came to it a bit later). It’s one of those records I’ve glued to a pedestal, like people do with torrid weekend affairs or their favorite dish at Denny’s. Go Forth was the soundtrack for some of the best and worst of the man-boy days, those first years out of high school when nobody in their right mind would take you seriously as an adult but you could prove your mettle by drinking Smirnoff Ice at parties and only occasionally crying in public. Falling in love with Go Forth overlapped with and harmonized those days, the soundtrack to a bildungsroman about a boy trying to learn how to pull his head of his ass and become a human adult person in this crazy world.
Les Savy Fav are a Brooklyn-based art-rock dance-y disco-beat punk powerhouse. Their songs are goofy and moving, dark and neon pink, coiled and wild, at once hip and also sort of uncool. They are a fairly well-loved band. Respected and all that, but not the sort of band that Pitchfork or their acolytes were really going to go to bat for. But I wanted to go to bat for them. I didn’t even sit down and flip through the liner notes or google a bio. I had no urge to peer behind that curtain. I just wanted the hard truths in gossamer. I wanted to hear about Moses and the burning bush and the orgasms we fake. I wanted the build up to that roaring final minute of “Disco Drive,” my favorite song on the album, and where I stole my credo: DON’T TRUST THE POETS.
Don’t trust the poets, they want to get paid
They’re playing their trade to the art of getting laid
Don’t trust the prophets, their visions are fudged
They’re buying our houses while selling us floods
The hours will get you
The owls will get you
When I was a swear word
The hours we shot-gunned
“Disco Drive” is a goddamn lightning storm of a song, but also it is the foggy smell of a night that ended with me throwing a cigarette at a friend’s face after learning he slept with a girl I very much cared about and the awkward ride home that followed. “Crawling Can Be Beautiful” blared from my speakers right after I got my license and meandered through Japantown in a cursed Acura expecting people to realize I was suddenly important or at least that I listened to music a bit more dangerous than Panic! at the Disco. Other episodes are easily recalled. A bald middle-aged man pulled a knife on me and a high-speed chase ensued. A drunk rockabilly boy crying in a backyard, cradling a switchblade nobody was impressed with. Giving up on writing my fourth unfinished fantasy novel. Punching trees and wrestling on strange lawns. Squeezing a girl’s hand in a Planned Parenthood operating room.
After leaving that Planned Parenthood, I walked home in the rain listening to “Bloom On Demand” again and again. It’s Go Forth’s final song, six minutes of uncharacteristic half-somberness. Tim Harrington’s droning croon of “This giving in is wearing thin/This giving in is wearing thin” hacked away at me, but it got me back home. And everything will be okay if you just get back home.
Can you conceive of
Working for the
Emperor’s new clothes?
At the time we used the garbage term of hipsters somewhat in earnest. Besides dressing like they didn’t shop at Target, I imagined hipsters to be people who were more or less required to know a lot about music, except all the community-college hipsters of 2003 only seemed to care about stuff like the Rapture and bands that sounded like the Rapture. Les Savy Fav was sort of in this sphere of influence and a friend of mine was a full-blown convert. He let me borrow Go Forth and the rest is drunk history.
There was much to love: those off-kilter vocals and lyrics whose command of shrewd imagery would shame any number of declared poets, the tense efficiency of the rhythm section, the insistence of lean rawboned guitar racket that felt like a weapon. Even after hearing every song ten times over, they still felt unpredictable, but you know, actually unpredictable. It became a fixture, my Good Book, the only CD I bothered to take to school, my idea of a commitment. I listened to the world with new ears. I liked the sound of the new world: bold and strange and full of options. This was the sound of standing up and partying after a day of living some life.
Use sentiment like aloe
Use sentiment like mace
Use sentimental explanations
Of how we got to this place
I got fucked by fate
If you were to visualize Tim Harrington merely by his voice you might expect him to resemble a svelte cigarette-chomping Brooklyn dude leaning against some wall, not a looming wild-eyed bald man with a wild tangle of lumberjack whiskers. He performs with a disdain for his own safety that would make Iggy Pop doff his cap. I’ve seen him climb up walls and swing from rafters, dry hump fans, even drag people on stage to cut their hair, and yet it never seems gratuitous, or for our sake. The rest of the band goes to work behind him, not indulging in Harrington’s psychotic-cardio method actor performances. Go Forth doesn’t come with Tim Harrington doing something outlandish in your living room, but that’s fine and in many ways better. You can forsake the spectacle and be moved by the spirit that moves him.
I for one am dazzled,
I don’t care if dazzled blind,
Rapt, enraptured, captured
By every little thing I find.
Though their sound is familiar, they aren’t. They do their best work melding irony with earnestness camouflaged in goofball histrionics. Harrington’s lyrics can dash past you like a coked-up runner quoting Scatman John, but sometimes, sometimes they land like a fist and wallop you, and you feel it around your eyes and in your chest and all the secret spots where music get its claws into you.
They’re scared of the silence
But be scared-er of the sound.
Hearts are not only beating
They are all counting down.
I saw them play live about three times in a year and a half. After one show I approached a sweat-drenched Tim Harrington, prepared to get all fanboy on him. Something like, “Tim, Go Forth was got me through one of the weirdest and most important years of my life. The unsettling inspiration of ‘Tragic Monsters’ began many a trip to school! ‘Reprobate’s Resume’ is a hot witty mess, and even my friend who likes terrible music shook his ass to that ditty! Your record sounds like it’s going to eat itself alive in the prettiest way possible. You are in every way better than Bob Dylan! I got broken up with in a planetarium and isn’t that what ‘Daily Dare’ is about? In conclusion, thank you for existing.”
Instead we ended up talking about Westerns. His favorite is Young Guns. That’s the correct way to meet your heroes. Not with a bang, but with forced small talk.
In our own myopic paranoid realities, the sky is constantly falling, forever and ever, and to keep it up where it belongs we need some help, our own collections of precious unsoiled stuff. Little bursts of beauty break down the wretched and the tedium into manageable parts. Lots of—perhaps even most—music is bad, but the good stuff is the most beautiful triumph we humans can lay claim to. That’s Go Forth: a buddy who kept me from getting crushed as best it could. It did pretty well and I won’t forget. So with respect to my former credo, absent successfully pulling your head out of your ass, the thing to take away is that actually it might be okay to trust the poets.