|THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED AN ACCIDENTAL DEATH.|
In mid-December, veteran rocker Kristin Hersch sent her new band's CD, "Golden Ocean," to music critics across the country. It had almost 10 years since she'd left Throwing Muses, a stint that firmly established her as a first matron of the '80s and early '90s alternative scene, and while Ms. Hersch performed solo, she was eager to promote her new band. The new group was, like Muses, a rock trio and informed by Ms. Hersch's own signature sound of sweeping distortion and aggressive rhythm. Its first EP, which was released last May, had won plaudits and the first-full length looked promising. The album was printed and pressed. The press packs were mailed. Ms. Hersch had put in the hard work and was waiting for the objective reviews of the critics.
Unfortunately for Ms. Hersch, as well as several populous nations in Southeast Asia, fate intervened. A week after her record label, Throwing Music, mailed out her packet, just as it was landing on the critics' desks, an unprecedented tsunami pitched out of the Indian Ocean and washed away close to 300,000 souls. The tsunami, for lack of a better term, washed away momentum from the release of Ms. Hersch's new band -- a group called, with creepy prescience and astonishing accuracy, 50-Foot Wave.
In an interview with Associated Press, Ms. Hersch admitted that she didn't see the connection between her band name and disaster at
first. "I wasn't thinking about me. I was thinking about all of those people," she said. But it wasn't too long before the media caught on and ran her story as one of the quaint, "news of the weird" pieces. The story appeared on The New York Times webpage, CNN.com, MSNBC and Billboard.com, among others, and popped on message boards across the internet.
Whether this extraordinary tsunami and its attendant horrors will be a "record-breaking"
development for Ms. Hersch waits to be seen. (Incidentally, in case you're wondering, 50 Foot Wave is a term for the lowest sound that is audible to the human ear.) It's not that the critics will hold the unfortunate naming against the band, but it is hard to be too enthusiastic about a group whose name conjures up so much destruction, death and stultifyingly dense news coverage. Honestly, what good can a critic say when every page of the liner notes, every glance at the cover art, brings to mind heaps of gory death, ruined civilization and throat-choking dispatches from Oprah's own Nate Berkus? At the very least, this unfortunate anecdote will turn up like a bad penny in 50 Foot Wave record reviews and interviews for quite some time to come.
50-Foot Wave wasn't alone in its suddenly inappropriate band name. Tsunami Bomb, a San Francisco Bay Area outfit in the vein of The Ataris and The Vandals, is an especially heavy favorite of hardcore
punks and melodic goth metal drones alike. During its shows, it regales its audiences with songs like "Dawn on a Funeral Day," "Russian Roulette" and "Swimming through Molasses" driving its homicidally blue fans into the lowest circles of self-absorbed angst.
When we think of irony in a band name or a song title, we tend to think of it as a one-way street. We look at groups that name themselves after unfortunate
|flashpoints in history -- like
the clever Franz Ferdinand or Joy Division and not-so-clever ones like Brian
Jonestown Massacre -- and note the joke, smirk at the tongue-in-cheek reference
and move on with it. But what we rarely notice is that fate, or some ethereal
semblance thereof, possesses the same capacity for irony. Someone out there
has a strange sense of humor.
Kristin Hersch and her 50-Foot Wave and the punk thrashers in Tsunami Bomb are, undoubtedly, strange coincidences. But they are by no means isolated cases and if we look farther back, we see that the history of music is littered with it.
Looking closely, it becomes clear how often the world of art is plagued by the coincidence of some bothersome current event. This is not to detract from the awesome destruction that these tragedies cause, but it seems that no disaster, whether natural or man-made, can strike without making an ironic spectacle of some artist or another. And while this is true for every medium -- when was the last time you saw "Rambo III," a movie you won't likely see again on TBS, when dopey John Rambo fought hand-in-hand with the mujahadeen-- it is especially true for music. And it has been going on for a very long time.
Turn the clock back three years, we can observe an even more
poignant event involving a then-little known from Texas called Explosions in the Sky.
Explosions in the Sky, whose music was recently featured on the "Friday Night Lights" soundtrack, titled its first album Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever. The album was a uniquely beautiful study that fused romance and tragedy in a particularly dark wash of melody. It was strong debut and would
|have been enough to earn them a place with
other notable atmospheric rockers like Mogwai and God Speed! You Black Emperor.
But the circumstances of the release propelled the band beyond such mundane
renown and immortalized the group in perhaps the most curious episode of
indie-rock arcana of all time.
Explosions in the Sky released its album on September 10, 2001 and the next day, on September 11th, the skyline above Manhattan exploded in fire as Islamic terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center. Not only did the band's name prefigure the attacks, but so did the album's elegiac art work of angels tracing empyrean paths to a fiery orange heaven. And the creepiest detail of all is that the record had a track that was titled, unbelievably, "This Plane Will Crash Tomorrow," which was subsequently removed from the album.
It seems that the fallout from the September 11th attack tempered the band's gloomy melodrama to a certain extent. Although the band still maintains its otherworldly sweet and sad soundscape, its sophomore album, The World is Not a Cold Dead Place, is a sort of an affirmation, spurning its lowest lows and, at times, approaching a sort of qualified cheerfulness. Clearly, in the post-Sept 11th world of jihad abroad and "red states" at home, the band felt that need to keep their musical chin up.
Or take the famous case of Cole Porter and the first, ill-fated version of his musical Anything Goes. Before Ethel Merman debuted the
devilishly saucy Reno, it was originally a light-hearted musical comedy about a shipwreck. But shortly before opening in November 1934, the SS Morro Castle, a passenger liner launched under the worst of signs, caught fire off the coast of New Jersey and interred over 100 men and women to the deep. Literally overnight, the topic of shipwrecks became taboo. The script was immediately overhauled beyond recognition and the Anything Goes we all know from high school musicals came to be. Comedians
wouldn't broach the idea of shipwrecks again until the pilot of Gilligan's Island.
(This wasn't the first time that fate screwed over Cole Porter. His first play, See America First, flopped in 1916, largely due to the fact that a Germany submarine sank another passenger ship named the Lusitania the night the show opened on Broadway.)
There are countless examples of music that seemed fine at the time it was made, but makes us cringe today. The Clash's "Spanish Bombs" in lieu of Madrid, Anthrax after the anthrax scares or all those catchy racist tunes from Disney's "Song of the South (Zippity-Doo-Dah included) that underwent heavy editing for Splash Mountain. I don't know what the big bands were playing when the Titanic sank or what the kids were singing about when the Hindenburg burnt to a cinder, but I'm sure that somewhere, someone's music was implicated by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
There is probably a lesson that we should take away from this. Fate is a capricious godhead with a penchant for cruel coincidence and a well-developed dark sense of humor. If you sing it or write it, there is a real possibility that it just might come true.
Adam Mayle is a freelance writer and distracted graduate student. He writes about traveling, culture and or anything else that strikes his fancy.