When my grandparents retired in 1967, they left England in their light-blue VW Bug to see the world, and accidentally drove smack into the middle of the Six Day War. Surrounded by Israeli tanks, they stopped momentarily, before resolving to carry on, as they would say, south into the Sinai—and put themselves safely between the Israeli and Egyptian armies. Though not on the same level, my first band, Jonathan Fire*Eater, had two of what I would describe as close calls.
First, in a nasty snowstorm outside of Sunnyside, Washington, we flipped our beloved 1987 Dodge Ram Van. We rolled three or four times and came to a stop, upside down, with everybody except me hanging like bats from their seatbelts. I wasn’t strapped in and was face down on the roof, having been hit square in the face by a flying Maestro Echoplex. (This is something that hurts.) After yelling for a bit, we crawled out of the windows only to almost get flattened by a Honda Civic, which was also crashing.
Two or three weeks later, we were in New Orleans for the first time. After many Bahama Mamas, we were on the top deck of an old riverboat that used to be a casino in the Mississippi. Walter and I accepted a bet to jump off this riverboat. Having subsequently lived in New Orleans, I know now just how fast that river is moving right there—and also all of the garbage, industrial waste, and Bahama Mama cups stuck in the mud. God knows how we survived and made it back to land.
We had taken off our shoes before jumping. Stewart, our singer, promised to bring them to shore for us, but he went back to playing roulette. When we jumped, I remember thinking, “Wow, this is an amazing idea. How did we think of this?!” But after you’ve done it, and need to get back on, you notice that the side of the boat is covered with signs saying, “Jumpers Will Be Prosecuted.” I remember standing at the entrance, soaking wet, 20 years old, absolutely hammered—the Platonic ideal of someone who has just jumped off a casino riverboat into the Mississippi. The boat was called The S.S. President, and the story at this point reminds me of the way my 7-year-old—but also our current president—lies. Sir, did you jump off the boat? No. Why are you soaking wet? I’m not. You’re wet. Anyway, I need to get my shoes off the boat. Why are your shoes on the boat? They’re not. [Long pause.] Look, I need to get my shoes off the boat.
My friends and I started a band just to play at my 45th birthday party a few years ago, and we enjoyed it so much that we just kept going. We decided to try writing our own stuff. We made an album on Bandcamp, and we’re in the process of making another. We’ve played a handful of shows at local clubs—though there always seems to be an air of disappointment when we go on stage, and I think it’s because we’re all in our late 40s/early 50s. Are we just too old for this? Are we embarrassing ourselves?
There’s nothing wrong with this whatsoever. Maybe you could embarrass yourself if you’re not acting your age—don’t dress like a Vice reporter. But as long as you’re just being yourself, I’m sure it’s great. Furthermore, it will get easier in a few years. Maybe not at 45 or 50, but in my experience, people love senior citizens in rock ’n’ roll clubs. I was always thrilled to see parents and grandparents in the audience. Even the grizzliest bouncers rolled out the red carpet for my parents when they came. Especially my dad, who was firmly in his 70s when we started. People would be falling over themselves to get him free beers and stuff earplugs in him, or coyote him around the rat village in the old 9:30 Club alley.
Embarrassment comes in all shapes and sizes. Everybody else is doing just fine in that department, too—particularly at a nightclub. Five years ago, at one of our last DC shows, I had to usher some drunk Millennial away from my 75-year-old mom. He was trying to get her phone number. (She had no cellphone, so I couldn’t help thinking he was asking for my phone number.) It wasn’t so much that she was resistant, rather she had no idea what was happening. I’m all for unusual pairings, but a 45-year-age gap? It’s a long way from the German Blitz of London—which she remembers—to “IMP Presents: The Walkmen with special guest Tennis.” That guy needed to go home.
Anyway, as you get older—and especially if you become a parent—if embarrassment is a governing principle in your life, well, I’m gonna hazard that’s unusual. When I respond to emails immediately (absolutely immediately!) I don’t do it because it’s cool. It’s weird. But I do it because I’ll forget to write back otherwise. When I Insta my kids (Does that verb embarrass you?), I do it because I literally cannot help it. If one person says my kid is cute, it makes up for the 10 people who are wondering if I think I’m the first person to ever have children.
What’s your take on the B-side collection? For The Walkmen, would it even be possible to release a collection of B-sides and extra tracks as one cohesive album (like a Record Store Day Release)?
—Mike in Seattle
I adore B-side releases. Some people have a very clear idea of whether they’ve done something good, but I think it’s hard to be objective about your own songs. Musicians jettison songs and ideas for reasons that might make sense if they could ever explain them, but songs arrive without explanation. Angel Olsen—who has, I think, my favorite current voice—put out two records last year, one of them a B-side collection. I find myself coming back to that one, Phases, more often than My Woman, and I actually like it quite a bit more. I’m sure plenty of folks might disagree, but it’s my preference. The push and pull of the musician’s near-constant battle between technique and emotion really comes into focus with Angel’s truly magical cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than The Rest.” That recording gives me the chills, even though the guitar is out of tune.
You can follow your whims on those outtake records. It’s accepted and forgiven that there’s less continuity. It’s like the NBA All-Star Game: Sure, he turned the ball over, but it was entertaining when Lebron James tried to dribble on his defender’s head. Furthermore, if you’re in the studio—unless there is a dictator in the band—some common ground is inevitably sought and the effect is necessarily homogenizing. On a standard album, songs can fulfill roles: This is the slow one, this is the fast single, this one explains the mood of the record without necessarily standing on its own. But you can have four acoustic demos followed by an instrumental on a B-side record, and it won’t be considered purposefully strange. Anything is fine, really. It’s more of a documentary than a feature film.
As for us, The Walkmen would need the ghost of Johnnie Cochran in order to assemble to the rights from all of our different labels for a B-sides collection. But if anyone can do it, it’s our lawyer Brad Shenfeld of Shenfeld Law P.C. Look him up. Great guy.