FANS LOVED ELLIOTT SMITH FOR HIS UNHAPPINESS AND HIS DISCOMFORT, IF ONLY BECAUSE HIS MUSIC ALLEVIATED THEIRS.
When the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, burned to the ground during a Great White show last February, a hundred heavy-metal fans died and the Providence Journal (taking its lead from the New York Times’s September-eleventh coverage) published small obituaries for each, based on interviews with the victims’ families. Well over half of these families focused on their loved one’s passion for music. They spoke with deep affection and pride about the degree of fanship these adult victims exhibited—how far they traveled to attend concerts, how much band memorabilia they owned. The mother of thirty-one-year-old Great White fan Robert Croteau told the Providence Journal that her son “died doing something he loved” and recalled how the family had used one of Great White’s albums to coax Croteau out of a four-month coma the year before. She described a bedside vigil in which the family played Great White songs to the comatose man, who finally awoke from the coma asking to hear more Great White. I realized, as I don’t think I had before the Station tragedy, that there are scenes and circles I don’t travel in where adults take pride in their rock fanship and their friends and family don’t regard it as any freakier a passion than athletics, foreign travel, or gourmet cooking.
Days after the Station disaster, I attended a comedy show in Los Angeles where a comedian described this incineration of a hundred music fans on the opposite coast as a form of “natural selection.” The audience giggled. To this comedian and this audience, the Station victims represented some weird, undesirable other. Was it a class joke? I don’t think so. I doubt the audience would have laughed at a hundred working-class people burned to death in a factory fire. Heavy-metal music revels in all the excess—the aggressive hedonism and overwrought emotions—that we’re expected to leave behind, or at least submerge, when we leave adolescence.
All of this got me thinking about my own musical fanship and the nagging sense of shame that accompanies it. My friends have trained me to treat the ferocity of my musical passions as a shameful secret. The message seems to be this: Listen to whatever you want and like whatever you want, but temper your enthusiasm to suit your advanced age (I’m thirty-four). Praise moderately and possess no evidence of devotion aside from music. That is to say, no “merch,” unless intended ironically: vintage Peaches and Herb T-shirt, cool; new Radiohead T-shirt, not cool. The trappings of my fanship appall my friends: my T-shirts (Mudhoney, X, Hole), my show posters (Kristin Hersh, the White Stripes). I have a postcard from Exene Cervenka of the band X framed in my living room, her kind response to a fan letter I wrote many years ago. This too, I’m told, should go, or at least be relocated to a more private location.
It may be wrong to make age the issue. Rock fanship earned me peer scorn as early as the seventh grade. If you were a twelve-year-old girl in a preppy Catholic school in 1982, you were supposed to listen to the Go-Go’s. You listened to them and you emulated their hair and makeup. You might resort to superlative language to characterize the beauty, zest, and pep of these very gifted women, but you did not, for obvious reasons, huddle in dark rooms whispering about how the Go-Go’s understood you and saved your life with their songs. The Go-Go’s were of no use to me in the seventh grade. I was a public school kid starting Catholic junior high.
I lived in terror of an obese nun prone to verbal humiliation and shoving. The Go-Go’s sang about boyfriend dramas at the beach and I had access to neither of those things. My life hurt and the Go-Go’s had “the beat.” I discovered Pink Floyd’s The Wall during this time and it saved my life. The Wall revealed many beautiful truths to me, notably that teachers who humiliate and shove little children do so to vent the rage they feel about their inconsequential, sexually frustrated little lives. Also these children sometimes grow up to be rock stars—I liked that part, too. I felt saved and also possessed—totally, constitutionally overwhelmed by the enormity of my affection for this music. And like religious zealots who put those fish on their cars, I too felt compelled to bear witness. I bought two Pink Floyd pins—one with just the name of the band, one with Gerald Scarfe’s grotesque rendering of the album’s “teacher” character. My Pink Floyd buttons enabled me to make that subtle transition from peripheral girl to strange loser. Eventually, I found two thick, pimply boys who were also Floyd-obsessed and we spent recesses together standing against the fence in the farthest corner of the blacktop talking about music. I threw them over, of course, when a popular girl took an interest. I remember missing them, but I never for a moment questioned which friends I wanted. In the hierarchy of junior high, my music pals were losers and these girls had the beat.
Whether it’s Great White or Pink Floyd or Tori Amos, there’s something about the sight of a person swooning over rock music that makes some people recoil. Maybe broadcasting a love of intense music is a way of wearing one’s emotional disarray on one’s sleeve—unseemly in more elevated circles. I love the mass ritual of rock shows—swaying, nodding, yelling with the tribe—but I’ve grown self-conscious about it with age. If I doubt my ability to rock moderately, I go to the show alone.
Persecuted rage and Pink Floyd at twelve gave way to angsty melancholy and the Smiths at fifteen. Throwing Muses saw me through college and Elliott Smith was the principal musical savior of my twenties. Smith released five albums between 1994 and 2000 and died this past October from two stab wounds to his chest. Initially called a suicide and mourned by fans as such for over two months, the case remains open at this writing. The Los Angeles County Coroner declared the cause of Smith’s death “undetermined” after failing to conclude how his wounds had been inflicted. An investigation continues.
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