I should say in advance that this is going to be the most personal post I've ever done and probably that I'll ever do. Also this will be the last update for a week or so as I'm going out to Phoenix for a memorial and then onto LA and SF for a few days.
1. Red House Painters - s/t (Rollercoaster) (1993)
I have so much rushing through my head at the moment, I don't know where to start. I'm sitting in my car in front of my first home in Bedford, TX, writing this down on the back of an envelope with a Bic pen that doesn't want to cooperate with me. I came here today specifically for the purpose of writing about this album and now that I'm here I just want to enjoy the silence. So it goes....
It's been over ten years since I've been back to my old neighborhood. Driving into it a little earlier, I was greeted by vaguely familiar (albeit much smaller than I remember) street grids and very familiar locales (the empty supermarket parking lot where my mom taught me how to ride a bike is now a library, the jungle gym in the park where I broke my leg, the creek in that same park where I found a Swiss army knife one time and thought it was luckiest thing ever, and still have somewhere) and especially the street names: Harwood Rd, Forest Ridge Dr, Cummings Rd, and of course my old street, Wendover Ct. Chances are these names don't mean anything to you, but to me they are forever ingrained in the back of mind, and they evoke a million and one memories of my childhood. Turning onto the street where I grew up (an 'F' shaped cul de sac), I was hit with a tsunami of emotions I could never describe. Much of this place is embedded in my person, and even if I could accurately put it into words, no one will ever understand these things the way I do, the lingering familiarity that I feel, and that makes me a little sad.
When I first arrived I rang the door bell to my old house, somewhat nervous the present owner might mistake me for a thief or solicitor, and looked around as I waited. A lady answered the door and I explained to her that I used to live there and she kindly invited me in. She was a dietitian, and a very nice lady. Walking through my old house was, of course, a trip further down memory lane as I'd forgotten so many things that were just buried deep under all the newer memories I had accumulated. But as it always happens, despite that the house had been entirely re-decorated; everything came rushing back to me.
All those Christmases huddled around the fireplace with my mom and dad, the warmth of fire and my parents love, the impossibly tall ceiling of that living room, all the tiny design elements of the house that I'd become so acquainted with so long ago, were all just as I'd left them. She took me to the backyard and showed me the pool, which was almost exactly the same as it was in 1992, with those motley blue, black, and green tiles I could spend an entire summer day just staring at, getting lost in their swirling patterns. The neighborhood was like a huge playground to us. We knew every nook and cranny of it by heart, secret pathways to each others houses via jumping fences, the best trees to climb, the spots on the street which marked the goal lines for our football games we'd play with this neon orange ball that would illuminate with the push of a button (and when we were feeling strategic or just playfully devious, we would switch off the moment before a hand-off to confuse the opposing side). It was all mapped out back then, and it still is now.
I had some great friends. There was my first ‘girlfriend,’ Alex, who I remember as being blonde and gap-toothed, and who became a meth addict, and is now working for the government somewhere, maybe D.C. There was A.J., who lived on the corner, who I’d play video games with and jump on his trampoline and play wall ball like it was neatest thing ever, and was one of the best friends I ever had - no idea what became of him. Then there was David and Devon who lived next door. David was my age and Devon was the cool older kid we all looked up to and wanted to be like. We all had the same style of chili bowl haircuts, inspired by Devon Sawa and Jonathan Taylor Thomas and we spent every free moment we had playing sports in the street. I remember a sleep-over in David’s back cabin where we watched Alien 3 and played a boyishly homoerotic game of truth-or-dare with each other. But more than anything I remember being alone most vividly. I can almost recall the feeling I’d have, that naïve blissful feeling, of just sitting in my front yard in autumn playing with the exoskeleton of a cicada for hours and hours, completely unaware of time, completely appreciating every aspect of my little world.
The summers seemed like they would never end, yet always ended too soon. Everything then had a soul back then too. Every season, every month even, every tree or bush or flower bed, every insect and animal, and especially the houses themselves
I don't believe in ‘souls’ nowadays because I've come to learn that word is just a romantic signifier people of the past gave to the human experience, and understandably so, because it is a very mysterious and complicated thing. However, if I did have a soul, I would say that more than any other band, Red House Painters SOUNDS like my soul FEELS.
Mark Kozelek is 45 now, but he was around my age when he wrote these songs. He has since matured and no longer makes such dark, reminiscing music, but knowing he was 26 once and that someone else feels the same is very comforting to me. On the song, “Void” from Old Ramon, the last Red House Painters album, Kozelek sings, “Sometimes I pick it up and play / loosen and stretch it's ancient strings / until it sounds the way I feel.” This is how music should be made. You shouldn’t be concerned with subscribing to any musical trend or make music with any ulterior motive, it should be about expressing the inexpressible, and that is what Kozelek does so well.
I considered the Rollercoaster album to be my favorite and the very, very best record I knew of for several years. I considered it to be god-tier, and although I no longer regard it as the 'best' album there is, it is certainly still one of my favorites. There was a time, maybe around 18 or 19, when I had to skip the first track of this album. The song is called "Grace Cathedral Park," and just hearing its opening chords was too much to bear for me at the time. I can listen to it now, but it still moves me greatly, as does the entire record. I have put the piano version of "Mistress" on too many mix cds to even try and count.
I've spent many years trying to either embrace, or come to terms with, or rid myself of this nostalgia. I spent a few recent years under the idea that this sort of sentiment was detrimental to my progress as a person, and it was weighing me down. However, I've recently concluded that despite this time is probably nothing more than a sweet deception, a heavenly lie we are allowed to live for ten or twelve years, its good to keep a tiny piece of your past self intact, because I've seen what happens to people who don't and how dangerous such a separation can be, and I know now that's not how I want to be.
After I left my old house there was one other place I wanted to visit before leaving Bedford. By now I'd had enough silence, and I finally put in my cd of the Rollercoaster album, and drove to the park where I use to go often as a child. It was dusk, and everything was bi-tonal. The sky was completely clear, occupied only by the silhouettes of a flock of passing birds and the white trail of a single jet plane passing by. The sky was the color of orange sherbert near the horizon, and it blended into a gradient of periwinkle blue above it. Everything else was either that sherbert orange or periwinkle blue, or a black silhouette, the dim outlines of the leaf-less treetops, each with a million tiny crooked points, and below that the water, its ripples and reflections moving fluidly, so solemn and serene. It's the beauty of these simple and seemingly ordinary scenes such as a park at dusk that Kozelek knows and captures so well, with the keen eye of a child, and the poetic mastery of a grown adult.
As I sat there listening to "Things Mean a Lot," I reminisced on the halcyon days of youth that I yearned for and spent trying to recapture in my teenage years, and came to resent for their blissful taunting of my early twenties, and now at 26, the same age Kozelek was when he was writing these, I think I finally understand what he was trying to say. Even if his songs were about some park in San Fransisco that I've never been to, in a sense mine and his (and yours) are the same, and that essence of wistfulness or saudade or nostalgia or whatever you want to call it, is all so poetically (and philosophically) summarized in one single short line midway through the Rollercoaster album:
"Things mean a lot at the time, don't mean nothin' later"
Note: normally I assign scores to albums, but to try and give these ratings would be pointless as they transcend numerical values. Let this speak for itself.
DOWNLOAD : Red House Painters - s/t & Down Colorful Hill
DOWNLOAD : Red House Painters Retrospective (2 disc, FLAC, 700~MB)