by Carl Wilson
(The subtitle up top says, “Untimely talk,” so I thought, let’s go for it with an 18-year-old indie-rock single, obscure and yet still venerated enough in mixtape-type-cult circles not to be any special discovery. It was just on my mind this week. In the midst of doing it I learned it wasn’t as “untimely” as I’d thought, as Rebecca Gates is on the verge of finishing her first album in 9 years, partly recorded at Hotel2Tango in Montreal. Exciting.)
(By the way, this post is lengthy, but it will be a lot more worthwhile if you also listen to the embedded songs.)
What is this odd, enchanting tune by long-defunct Portland duo The Spinanes, from a time when “underground” was just turning into “indie rock,” as you almost hear happening here between chords? (In another song they had the line, “Have you given up punk for Lent?” This is how that might sound.) Is it a breakup song? A song about infidelity?
It’s surely somebody gumming up the works of love, willfully or by helpless reflex. But its viewpoint is so interior as to yield not much more than a hint at how the process the singer’s going through – perhaps that of going through a shoebox full of mementos – resolves. Or whether it does.
Rebecca Gates wrote, sang and played guitar on all Spinanes songs (she should be honored as a guitar hero who anticipated Sleater-Kinney and Marnie Stern); the only other member was drummer Scott Plouf, and by the third and final Spinanes album, the salty and soulful Arches and Aisles, he had left (to join Built to Spill). But this was long before that.
Plouf is vital to their harder-rocking songs but mostly in the background here. Is it coincidence the drums become prominent only when the singer’s most challenging and direct with her partner – the man (we’ll assume, from internal cues) who plays “you,” likewise mainly peripheral? This is less a duo than most Spinanes songs. It isn’t really the voice of one person to another. Maybe the chorus, with its full rock drumming, is the only thing she says aloud, and the rest is inner monologue, talking to “you” in her head.
The guy’s been on a trip and brought her back a kitschy, ’90s-sounding gift, a postcard of an out-of-place Santa Claus in sunny Hawaii, “with a baby.” We never know if she likes or hates it – funny? not funny? “please don’t mention babies to me right now”?
She stands in the “back screen door,” half-watching him do domestic things, while she’s mentally “writing love letters to others.” They move apartments. They go out for a family dinner and on the way she’s watching for a moment, and a mailbox, to send the transgressive note (more, I think, nudging the door of an affair than having really opened it yet?).
When she tries to explain to herself why – “just for kicks,” “just because it’s cool on [her] skin” – they seem like phrases she’s only trying out. They’re not-quite-right alibis for fleeing whatever is keeping her from genuine contact with “you,” for an intimacy breakdown (“can’t you hear me? … can’t you feel it?”) that seems to have struck like weather, like flu, an immune-deficiency inherent to passion even, rather than a particular grievance. The guitar sound gradually swells, distorts; chords test their harmonic boundaries; as if in a world growing bigger but also less controlled, more jagged.
Which is what makes this a song that, for all its specific and eccentric detail, everybody knows: It’s about the persistent mismatch of romantic love to everyday life. “It’s my heart, and it doesn’t fit yours” – it could be a blunt personal assessment. But all the displacement of feelings into and out of objects in the lyrics makes you ask what is this “it” that is the heart. Is the cause socially constructed, personal-psychological, biologically innate? Early-90s-preoccupying questions about gender/sex and essence/choice come to mind.
(So: Why a picture of a cowboy? Why is LOVE spelled in “letters scrawled across the bottom,” as if by a child?)
This brings us to the strangest turn, the one that makes this song especially worth talking about. Suddenly we’re out drinking and we’re not sure if any of the characters, even the narrator, is out with us. “Graeme’s down at the bar, teaching hardships…” And then the vocal doubles and someone sings, “Verlaines, Verlaines, Verlaines, Verlaines…” What is that doing there?
When I first heard “Hawaiian Baby” in the late ’90s, I took the reference to the French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine to signify that Graeme (boyfriend, rival or third party) was a student type, tossing “Verlaines” around with masculine pretension, almost like a drug with his drink (valiums, valiums, valiums). But later, having caught up a bit on New Zealand rock, I realized it was an almost-direct quote (heard as if from a distance) from this song: The Verlaines‘ “Death and the Maiden” (a single from 1983).
It’s the band’s best-known song, and its anthem for obvious reasons. Gates has just pluralized “Verlaine” to “Verlaines” – a cute band-to-band tribute (Stephen Malkmus of Pavement in the same period lifted a cadence from “Maiden” for the verse of “Box Elder”), but again, what’s it doing in the middle of this emotionally precise song?
“Graeme” who’s “down” at the bar seems to be Graeme Downs, lead singer of The Verlaines. So maybe our narrator’s at a show, and the “teaching” is in song. While I don’t know the Verlaines’ repertoire well enough to detect further references (I was more into the Clean, 3Ds, Chills, Peter Jeffries, Chris Knox, of the NZ scene), the off-kilter syntax of “sex and cigarettes and slow-sad says he” points to “Slow Sad Love Song,” a wild gorgeous Downs composition from 1987’s Bird-Dog:
Am I wrong to hear traces in the main chord progression there (before it goes so beautifully off the rails) of the chords to “Hawaiian Baby”? Suddenly what we have seems less a breakup or cheating song than … an answer song.
The two Verlaines songs both come from trad literary-romantic POV’s (see Downs’ former Flying Nun labelmate Matthew Bannister’s extensive scholarly paper on Downs’ poète maudit persona and its dissonances): In “Maiden,” he’s kissing off a hoity-toity acquaintance who’s always dropping names and theories: “You’re just too obscure for me.” If he sticks around, “We’ll look like Death and the Maiden” – the dark vice-ridden rocker sucked dry by the duality of feminine clinging/feminine Eros – or she’ll “end up like Rimbaud, get shot by [his lover] Verlaine, Verlaine, Verlaine, Verlaine…” (Though since Downs is the real name-dropper here, and it’s his band name, you have to allow for irony.)
By contrast “Slow Sad” features a guy who’s been crushed by a girl who “had me well-read… beautifully put down,” and has flopped into his pitiful little bedsit to die.
They’re well-drawn portraits of the male side of a romantic split, with women getting blamed for holding too much power or too little, with at least mock-violent consequences.
“Hawaiian Baby” is a revision of that bohemo-vinist underground guff from the indie-feminist side of the looking glass. Yes, Gates’ protagonist will accept blame. She doesn’t justify herself, except with rationalizations that survive barely a few measures. (The worst we can charge her boyfriend with is tacky taste in postcards.) Sure, sure, it’s not you, it’s me. But unlike Downs’ women, her “me” is a three-dimensional perplexed person whose power is in several senses beyond her.
(On the other hand, I have no idea why the distant vocal also intones, “six days, six days” – any suggestions?) *Later: See comments!
One of the most generous pleasures of “Hawaiian Baby” is the girl-group “la la la” that enters on the chorus, but it also seems incongruous in its sweet conventionality of language and lilt. It makes me question this suddenly simplified “heart” talk – too Cosmo, too advice-column. As if to say, don’t confuse hard truths with easy outs.
Or perhaps to say it’s impossible not to resort finally, amid complexity, to cliché: Gates’ protagonist may be saying what she has to say to dig herself out of the mud hole, or to counter the mud one lover or another is now “slinging” at her. You could take the closer – “someone does it just because/ it’s not on their skin” – with its indeterminate pronoun, as “I do it because I can’t feel it” or “you do it because you can’t hear me,” or both: “It’s not you or me.”
Where this hole came from, the one that cannot find a heart to fit – that part’s a mystery. The song only knows it’s not solved by labeling villains and victims, or volunteering to play those parts: That’s just a picture someone brought here from somewhere.