Monthly Archives: January 2012

History Lesson: Deliverance from Crack Rock

“Deliverance from Crack Rock,” from Sweetest One (2004)
In your Thunderegg course packets, please flip to the lead story of the Tony Alamo Ministries newsletter, November 2000, which you found under your windshield wiper:

DELIVERANCE FROM CRACK ROCK!  During the Christmas season, 1996, I was a homeless man struggling to survive the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey. I was an alcoholic and strung out on the crack rock. My life had spiraled down to nothing . . . I came upon literature from the Holy Alamo Christian Church that I was going to use to start a fire that fateful December evening. Something made me read the words so eloquently written, and it changed my life. From that day forward I stopped smoking the crack rock and only 10 months later weaned myself off the Wild Turkey. Today I am a proud and changed man thanks to the Holy Alamo Christian Church.

Would that all the world, especially in the post-grunge era of which our proselytizer speaks, have kicked the crack rock as well. But in the early nineties we got hooked on those gigantic guitars and loud-soft-loud-soft song structures, and there we built our cage. Like rebellious radioactive goo or Starburst Flavor Morph, crack rock has evolved into its own species, Nervermindus interruptus; it represents the toxic post-grunge deluge ever since Nirvana, which I maintain did a lot more harm than good in the long run. I liked Nirvana. But late on a Friday night last September I was driving around Brooklyn looking for an open gas station (the local BP was closed because the abandoned building next door was burning), listening to a reverential story on NPR about the twentieth anniversary of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I lost count of how many times callers and commentators alike called it “important.” Driving down Fourth Avenue I was clucking to myself, “What about Stone Temple Pilots? What about Bush? What about Nickelback? ALL NIRVANA’S FAULT!” Then I played a midnight solo gig at Freddy’s for a crowd of three: Ivan, Tex, and this guy, also named Will, who’d been kind enough to get drunk with me at the bar beforehand, although eventually he had to go because he had to get up early for his job renting out bicycles in Grand Army Plaza.

If Thunderegg has had one discernible purpose since its inception, it has been to deliver the masses from crack rock. It’s okay to admit it: You were about to use your digital-only copy of Sweetest One to start a fire in your crack(rock)house, weren’t you? But something made you stop. The Egg can change your life, and we won’t even make you quit the Wild Turkey.

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History Lesson: You String Me

“You String Me,” from Larry (1994)
I had arrived at college as one kind of stock character, the former student council president still in love, long-distance, with his high school sweetheart, and in less than three months I’d morphed into another: the lost freshman boy who slept all the time, a pale arm sometimes extending, cautiously, from under the comforter to write on the wall.

Wedged in the slime, they say: “We had been sullen
in the sweet air that’s gladdened by the sun;
we bore the mist of sluggishness in us:
now we are bitter in the blackened mud.”

So said “the souls of those whom anger has defeated” in Canto VII of the Inferno. I know it’s the passage I wrote on my wall because I underlined it in my Signet paperback, including a note in the margin that diligently says, “I wrote this on my wall,” as if it would be on the midterm. I had two roommates, just one wall to myself in that entire room, and I vandalized it. There had to be somewhere else to write away anger and defeat.

Turn it outward, blast it at a bunch of people with cups in their hands. If it’s loud enough and you mean it enough, and if in the process of being loud and meaning it you suddenly find you’re enjoying yourself, they will buy it. Maybe not buy buy, like with money, but they’ve all been strung along and they’ve all been drunk and they all like Nirvana too, which is fortunate since here—two years later now—we’re playing a cross between “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Rape Me.” Of course it’s only a complete coincidence that this song was written the same month that In Utero came out: It’s not a rip-off, it was the zeitgeist! The singer is stinkin’ dee-runk. The entire band is a little off, a little uncool, and so all the more credibly unhinged: Justin goes atomic on his solo. Jamie’s running his 1987 keyboard through a flanger pedal to make it sound like a jet plane. And there are conga drums. Allies. They let it build into the second part, secretly known, to me alone, as “Part II: The Temples of Kajahbada,” an extended instrumental jam wherein I imagined my Peavey Predator shooting laser beams. Straight through the wall.

This was Larry. In time, at the end of our shows, they would chant Larry, Larry, Larry.

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History Lesson: What Was I Gonna Do?

“What Was I Gonna Do?,” from A Very Fine Sample of What’s Available at the Mine (2005)
I am on the mini futon sofa in the control room in the Shed in Manchester, Connecticut, sometime between 2000, when we started recording our debut full-band breakthrough, A Very Fine Sample of What’s Available at the Mine, and 2005, when we finished. Many great bands take five years to record an album. Just look at the Stone Roses. The refrigerator switches on periodically and makes the power surge, the lights swooning briefly. Once in a while you’d hear that click on the recording, but it was a small cost for keeping the 30-pack of High Life cold. Natron and I are in repose, the day either done or not yet started; either way, he has just stepped back inside after enjoying a Black & Mild on the porch, and I have just gotten good and high to sharpen my creative faculties to a lethally incisive point. Jake will come around later. We listen to the playback as I flip through a Playboy and set the bottom of my foot flat against the wall in the tiny room, within the shoe-shaped outline that somebody already helpfully traced there with a Sharpie. We talk of the Egg’s next ventures, of the rise we see so clearly before us. We are young hitmakers. A label would surely want to get involved, and furthermore this song, I say, is ripe for a video. We’ll put it together at my parents’ house in Nantucket in the summer, everybody dressed in white like Nelly would do it. Couples dancing as the sun set, gin and tonics, croquet, happy good-looking people. My little cousin Matt? He would film it. He’d probably even do it for free. He was just a kid in art school and I was like a god to him. Who wouldn’t want to hang with his rock-star cousin?

New Thunderegg History Lesson every Monday and Thursday.

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History Lesson: Double Reverse

“Double Reverse,” from Personnel Envelo-file (1997)
Another number from the putt-putt series, recorded in the spring of 1996. I would take the Peter Pan bus to Hartford to visit Jake, to see the action transpire at Scarlett O’Hara’s in its unlikely location downtown, unlikely because there was not too much left of downtown Hartford. In the 1950s its heart was ripped out to make room for parking garages for the insurance companies. Somebody should have filed a claim for that. 

Nonetheless on the ride up Friday night I would start to get that feeling of eager anticipation, of knowing I was going to see a friend and drink beer and carry on: I loved looking forward to going out. At the bar I would watch loud girls talk and listen to the Dead cover band sound a lot like the Dead while an old local named Yogi played air clarinet on his necktie. On the way up, in my eager anticipation, I would talk to whoever was next to me on the bus. Or I would eavesdrop and be fascinated that not everybody lived my Hartford rock ’n’ roll dream.

6/9/96: The people in front of me on the bus are engaged in a discussion about religion. The clean-cut man looks to be from Utah but he’s from the greater Simsbury, CT, metropolitan region. He became a Jehovah’s Witness 7 years ago when he was “young,” 14. Now he talks about creationism in an aw-shucks tone of voice and ruffs his hair every once in a while.

Psh! What a mollycoddle! Then again he was talking to a girl and I’m sure he got her number in the end. Me? This might have been the same trip that, running to the bus and hungry, I found a tube of Ritz crackers on the floor of the Port Authority bus terminal. I was, of course, aware of Port Authority’s reputation, but the wax paper was crisply sealed and not a single cracker felt crumbled. I ate all thirty-eight of them as I rode north. Chicks dig shit like that.

I wrote this song on the way back, and if the words describe defeat, it feels like I don’t mind that much, which I considered to be the ultimate victory. Maybe spacing out to the Beach Boys all the time wasn’t entirely in vain. Maybe the next cassette would be better than New England Music. Back in Brooklyn I would record it and then wait impatiently for my next opportunity to ride a bus and be excited for who and what I’d see when it stopped.

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Sweetest One, now available digitally

Today we celebrate the digital release of Thunderegg’s 2004 album Sweetest One, which features early versions of such favorites as “The Scheduled Show,” “Long Way from Home,” and “If You Knew Me So Well” alongside lesser-known gems like “Deliverance from Crack Rock,” “I’m a Fool Again,” and “When the Cables Break.”

This is the Egg’s most low-fi venture, which makes it easy not to notice that it’s also a strong set of songs. I used only three of the Portastudio’s four available tracks when I was recording it, with the intention of overdubbing drums on the remaining track in the end. So everything’s really squished, the bass and the guitars and the vocals all stacked on top of each other. And then, unfortunately for my big vision, so it had to remain, because it turned out it’s really hard to record drums last. That’s why nobody ever does it that way.

Still, if you can get into the spirit of it, there are rewards to be reaped.

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History Lesson: Dog Leg

“Dog Leg,” from New England Music (1996)
There is a batch of Thunderegg songs with titles drawn directly from the scorecard of a putt-putt course that used to be on the Boston Post Road in Westbrook, Connecticut, a beautiful postwar throwback with leisurely miniature fairways, the long holes sprawling over vast acreage ultimately far too valuable for the meager returns of $5 a putter. During the spring of my senior year of college I played there, soundly defeating my best friend and my girlfriend both—just recalling this in passing—on assignment for the New Haven Advocate. That’s right: “girlfriend.” “On assignment.” Look at this guy and how much he’d arrived. This was really the only kind of assignment I tended to draw. One time I was supposed to cover a press conference involving the mayor of Stamford and I was too scared to get out of my car.

On the scorecard the holes were neatly divided into a front nine and a back nine, looking every bit like a mix tape with two sides, nine songs each. I accepted the challenge and got cracking with “Dog Leg,” then later “Billiard,” “Lighthouse,” “Double Reverse,” “Windmill,” “Flower Hole,” “Treehouse.” But some of them (man, “Mole Hill”) were bad and I lost interest and never even got around to writing “Sea Gull,” “Double Trouble,” “Covered Bridge,” “School House,” “Looptie Loop,” “Seal,” “Under Hurdle,” “Sea World,” or “Red Barn.”

I was proud of “Dog Leg” at the time. It was one of the last songs I recorded in New Haven before abandoning the haunted house and moving to the city. I thought it had a good bridge. Also, I’d read somewhere that somebody famous used to record vocals in the bathroom, you know, for the reverb, and so that’s what I did, burgeoning pro that I was. I’d just been fired from the coffee shop for being an all-around bad employee: frequently late, sarcastic, and also not very good at making coffee-based beverages. The incident that galvanized my dismissal was getting caught selling a very old, fizzy-tasting mozzarella-and-tomato salad to a friend for less than I should have. On my way out the door, my boss, whom I decided to call Dog Leg here, told me I seemed like somebody she’d like to hang out with, just not have as an employee. I was like, Yeah, right, like I’ll hang out with you now.

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History Lesson: The Drapes Come Open, Revealing the Grand Ballroom

“The Drapes Come Open, Revealing the Grand Ballroom,” from The Envelope Pushes Back (2000)
There was a little man walking around the wedding wearing a huge tape recorder on his back. It was 1971 so the machine was not compact; he looked more like the plastic army man carrying the radio set, but substitute brown lace-ups and Dacron suit for combat boots and flak helmet. The straps from the tape recorder backpack make the brown jacket bunch up at the shoulders. The cuffs of his cream-colored dress shirt protrude two inches, three inches, four.

Although a stranger, the man was hired to be the wedding’s roving reporter, to interview all the principals, to document with his microphone every step of the reception from cocktails to cake. The recordings would be pressed to vinyl and the LPs presented as a six-record box set to the newlyweds. On their shelf, next to the soft-rock jams they would acquire over the rest of the decade, his work would look like an opera. The interviews went better and better as the night progressed. Proud parents and old grannies and next-door neighbors and one little kid he suspected may have been a little off. The happy, breathless bride and groom at the very end in the interest of dramatic timing. But it was in the opportunities to describe the scene, standing there alone and talking to himself, that he knew he really excelled:

And now something’s happening. The whole wall of red drapes across from the reception area has just started to come open from the bottom. An ever-increasing arc, rising, getting higher and wider, the opening revealing the wide expanses of a dining room: Didn’t even know it was there. A huge dining room, filled with tables with tiny, flickering candles among the flowers. Looking across, it looks almost like a castle ballroom. Way at the far end, we see Donna and Tom, embracing…

At least this is how I pictured it. This is from Seth’s parents’ wedding forty years ago; for their thirtieth anniversary, Seth asked if I would burn the old records to a CD for him. The technology was still new. It was 2000 so the machine was not compact. I listened to the entire thing as the snow swirled outside my Harlem sublet. I had just moved back to the city after a year in the margins of Westchester and New Jersey. In the former, ill-conceived attempts at cohabitation and a bracing lesson in what love was and wasn’t. In the latter, a self-imposed exile to my parents’ nest where eventually I healed well enough.

By the end of the recording I knew all the guests as well as anybody. I felt like family. Family surrounds us always. Didn’t even know it was there.

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