by Carl Wilson
Memory, as everybody knows, is an odd, perverse thing. When I first saw the reunited Scud Mountain Boys’ stage setup at Lee’s Palace last weekend, I said, “Oh, that’s funny, it’s just like the photo on the back of one of their albums where they’re sitting in somebody’s apartment around a kitchen table, playing and drinking.” Then I came across the above 1990s-era photo online, clearly not a candid home snapshot but one that includes microphones and at least a bar booth if not an actual stage. Was this the album shot, or a publicity picture I got with the Sub Pop CD reissue of their first two albums, when I worked at an alt-weekly in Montreal in the mid-90s, which is how I first heard of the band? Or another picture altogether? I wanted to dig out my copy of the CD to check, but almost all my CDs are walled in with a bunch of boxes in a nook off my kitchen and retrieving it would be basically a home-renovation project.
What a more exhausting and error-fraught sort of excavation it must be to dig up three people with whom you were once intimate, but haven’t spoken to in 14 years, and propose that you do the thing you used to do together, before you stopped talking. But now-Toronto-based songwriter Joe Pernice (better known for his subsequent and current band, the Pernice Brothers) did that after a close mutual friend of the group’s unexpectedly died. The deceased had been a fan and the idea was to honour his memory. Not right after, though. As Pernice explained on stage, it took him a year to make the phone calls. But whatever he was afraid of happening didn’t happen, maybe because “nobody really remembers what caused all the shit any more.”
What I hadn’t known was that the kitchen-table-on-stage was a standard live Scuds motif in their initial run, around the Boston area, not a cute reunion gimmick. You could argue that now it has become a cute reunion gimmick. I think it is more apt to say that it is a technique, one of those stage-magic tricks you discover and maintain because it works, makes the show the way you need it to be. Now I find it virtually impossible to picture them standing in standard band configuration, rather than drinking beers off the table (Americans visiting Toronto always love Keiths), bending over in the uncomfortably expressive angles around their instruments that people do in a home song-swap session (not a “jam,” as Pernice admonished), mumbling in each other’s ears, telling tales between tunes.
But this was not folksy-homey coffeehouse shtick. Pernice’s songs are too infused with rue for that, as much as classical pop craftsmanship ever has been, lying (their pretty white asses off) where the mouths of the George Jones, Jimmy Webb, Alex Chilton and Joe Strummer rivers meet. His persona now is laid back and salty-charming, but the songs make it easy to picture it when his back-in-the-day yarns tend to include heavy doses of anti-anxiety meds. Then you’re tempted to imagine “all the shit” wasn’t so much the bass player, the mandolinist/drummer or the lead guitarist’s faults – but maybe that’s just because they weren’t talking as much on stage. Second-guessing other people’s memories is an even less reliable thing.
Indeed, I wondered what the person in question would have had to say about the story Pernice told about writing one of his best-loved songs: A girlfriend at the time, he said, kept going on about what a romantic song “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms was, and he exasperatedly responded that the guy in the song was just trying to get laid. To prove his point he wrote a seductive, early-70s-style, gorgeously hazy tune in which a guy tries to wheedle his way back into a girl’s bed (“I would give anything to make it with you, one more time/ I would give everything I own”), which builds up to chillingly menacing insinuations. He titled it, “Grudge Fuck.”
The crowd was full of pushing-middle-aged folks, no doubt with their own recollections to husband. There wasn’t a lot of dancing or swaying, as if everybody were still following the cool-rules of 1997, when they went to more shows, when audiences stood or sat nodding with their arms crossed whenever not moshing. But when they did express emotion, it was with surprisingly rowdy outbursts, of varying appropriateness: Why did people scream every time Boston was mentioned? Was the room really full of Mass. expats or were they just trying to bonafide their in-the-knowdom? Even on a Saturday in a bar, do you shout every time a song mentions drinking and drugging, when those are the things clearly killing the protagonists? Jeez, it wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day.
Unfair. But the intimacy made it tempting to rubberneck into people’s minds. Pernice suddenly did a double take at a woman holding up a homemade shirt in the front row: “Is that you?” He explained that she’d shown him the same shirt at a show in another town 15 years ago – when her parents brought her, and she was, “like, 13. … Wait, I don’t like the way that sounds.” The dysfunctional-neighbourhood feel was cemented when Sadies (and former Pernice Bros) drummer Mike Belitsky cracked the singer up so much from the back of the room with a text message (his iPhone was on the table, to watch the time) that Pernice had to take a few minutes’ break after corpsing on his first couple of tries at the Scuds’ somberly beautiful cover of Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” He had to think of “nuns beating me” and other dark childhood images to regain composure.
After all, I’m not the boss of anybody else’s nostalgia. (Though I’m tempted to call Pernice on leaving out that he didn’t just “work in a bakery” when the band started, but was doing an MFA in creative writing.**) Hell, I’m not even the boss of mine. I was grateful finally to see a band that never played near me in their original lifespan. And to see them enjoying each other’s company. Even though there’s a part of me that selfishly hopes this slight return will be the sum of it. That even wishes they’d remained, as the slogan of Lubbock, Texas’s The Flatlanders had it, “More a Legend than a Band.” (Yet even they later reunited for a string of shows and new records.) That sympathizes with Darren Hayman’s title, “We Love the Bands that Don’t Re-form.”
It’s an adult pleasure to have memories that stay memories, memories you can’t recover, even ones you never got to attain in the first place. Perhaps we just confuse reality with rarity, essence with inaccessibility. We think there’s only so much room around a kitchen table. Or, whether superstitiously or maybe with real folk wisdom, we long for minor rites of sacrifice, destruction, some kind of preview of death and loss to gird us for the real thing, even fantasizing it can homeopathically prevent the real thing: “I’m going to burn the silo when you go,” a farmer whose wife is on the way out sings in one sterling Scuds song. “You’ll see the flames, and maybe know.”
We’re damn fools, the thing is. Can’t we be allowed sometimes to forget that? The sugar-lick torture of the Scud Mountain Boys was to remind us and make us like it.
** Joe informs me that there was a significant time lag between the bakery and the grad-school period – sorry for presuming on my own in-the-knowness!