Oh, I suppose after having written a long piece about my ambivalence about single-malt Scotch, you’re thinking “there Berg goes; he’s talking about grain alcohol. That explains a lot”.
Perhaps it does:
Eveclear is a pure grain alcohol. 198 proof (that is to say, 99% alcohol) in its standard form (it’s diluted to 175 proof in Minnesota), Everclear is a common request from Minnesotans whenever I go back to visit North Dakota; it’s the main ingredient in homemade schnapps. More importantly, some of my most treasured memories – or fragments of memories, anyway – started out with shot after shot after shot of the delicious, clear beverage. Which also doubles as a lamp fuel if you’re stranded in the woods…
…oh, OK. I’m yanking your collective chain. No, while you can drink the stuff, it’s really stupid to try.
No, I’m actually talking about the band:
Everclear, a Portland-area punk band led by Art Alexakis, had a brief Top-40 heyday in the mid-nineties. They had (by punk band standards) a fairly brief swerve through “underground” success – which I mostly missed, other than reading snippets and hearing things from friends who still had time and energy to keep up with music; my kids were little, I was changing careers around and trying to teach myself a new trade, and music barely qualified as background noise for the most part.
But the band struck it big in 1996, vaulting out of the underground with So Much For The Afterglow, with a troika of singles, “Everything To Everyone”, “I Will Buy You A New Life” and “Father Of Mine”.
Now, before I heard any of this, I started reading (on that new “web” thing I’d just discovered) the usual punk kids, doing the same thing they do every time a punk band gets mainstream success and income; “Sellout!”. That, I expected.
The part I didn’t expect was the sniveling some of the punk kidz were doing about the music itself; “boring stuff about parents and being a father”.
So I cocked my ear to it.
Turned out Alexakis was about my age (actually eight months older), had (unlike most rock and rollers) a kid or two, and that the singles that were starting to leak out on the radio were about…
…grown up stuff. Having kids. Trying to be a decent father and feeling really inadequate at it. Trying to keep a relationship from fizzling out. Y’know – stuff that actual grownups do when they have left the club scene and packed their guitars and amps lovingly away in the closet and have to get on with real life. Stuff that was real to him and, I add in retrospect, me, at the time.
“Santa Monica” is, along with “A Man In Need” and “Tunnel Of Love”, perhaps the best song ever written about watching a relationship crumble from the inside; the song has a wistful, doomed hope in clinging to the familiar (“we can sit beside the ocean, leave the world behind, swim out past the breakers, watch the world die”) that, no matter how many times its repeated, rings hollow; we know as well as the singer does that there’s really nothing to be done about it – there’s just too much ugly behind the hope in the chorus (“I am still dreaming of your face/Hungry and hollow for all the things you took away/I don’t want to be your good time/I don’t want to be your fall-back crutch anymore”).
But rock and roll is crawling with great breakup songs, from “Backstreets” to, yes, “The Breakup Song”.
What Rock and Roll does not have many of is songs about being Dad.
I was sitting in a cube at my job in 1996 when “Father Of Mine” came on the radio. Alexakis’ real father left his family when he was young – I didn’t need to read anything to figure that out. What catches you – or at least what caught me, 13 years ago – about the song is the blood-curdling anger that Alexakis feels for his own father and, above and beyond that, the fear-laced hope that he won’t pass the baggage from that horror, and well as fresh horrors of own, on to his own kids.
Having little kids of my own at the time, the song caught me between the eyes. The song was as angry as anything the Clash ever did – but the anger wasn’t a vehicle adolescent posturing and puerile politics. It hit me where I lived, not at age 16, but 33, and the anger and the fear were no different for me, and it hit me just as squarely as “London Calling” had, half a lifetime earlier. Maybe moreso; this was my life.
It still is.
And for that brief moment, once in history, old punks didn’t die; the anger just grew up and got some purpose. Just like the old punks.
Alexakis has never come close to that peak since then. The band went the way of all punk rock bands, self-destructing not long after their brief heyday. And Alexakis did embrace puerile politics, eventually; he was a delegate to and entertainer at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and a reformed Everclear released a single, “Jesus Was A Democrat”, last year. I don’t even like it when people claim Christ was a conservative; the less said, the better.
But we’ll always have 1996.