The marriage was not doing well, to indulge in gross understatement: as I noted in a conversation with a terrific young woman this past weekend, I think most people change partners in graduate school, partly because graduate school changes who you are. She offered a friendly amendment that most *women* change partners in graduate school, and I tend to think she's right. (Hi, Janine!)
I was, at that time, going through a massive recalibration of my life generally: Kurt Cobain had died that spring, one of the major scholars with whom I had come to school to study died unexpectedly over the summer. It was starting to look as though everything were fading at the same time, and myself with it. I was reading for my comprehensive exams, an isolating process at best, and stopped eating and sleeping for close to three months. (Ironically, I looked great, if a bit wan.)
Cobain's death hit me hard: I had willfully hidden from music for a long time, the eighties being a pretty good decade in which to do that, then I was married to a Lynryd Skynyrd fan. I spent the time catching up on older music primarily. But Nirvana changed that for me. It brought me back into the mainstream of pop music, and I started listening around and understanding what my dependence on radio and MTV had hidden from me, that there was a whole scene hidden from me with the kind of music I actually liked. And when my younger brother sent me a tape: Material Issue on one side, Nevermind on the other, things began to change.
In September of that year (1994), my growing malaise hit a head. One Sunday evening, having come over to desultorily study Irish, Thers and I packed it in and joined my then-spouse on the couch to watch 120 Minutes. Bob Mould was the host, Lou Barlow his guest. Mould was at that time pushing the new (and last) Sugar album, File Under Easy Listening, and Barlow Sebadoh's Bakesale (both great records). They played Live's "I Alone," Guided By Voices' "I Am A Scientist," The Offspring's "Self-Esteem," a bunch of other great stuff. I was especially struck, though, by Magnapop's "Slowly, Slowly."
Magnapop were a Georgia band, two girls and two boys, discovered by Michael Stipe and produced by Bob Mould (thus their presence on 120 Minutes that fateful night). The video interspersed scenes of the band standing around in fields with dogs jumping and young people in various intimate positions. Let me be clear about this (because this was more important to me than I can tell you): the video was about intimacy. People sat on couches with their partner's heads on their laps, touching the gap of skin between the top of the jeans and the bottom of the shirt. They shared headphones, they looked in the mirror together. It wasn't dirty, but it made me ache for that kind of casual contact notably missing from my current relationship. It brought into sharp relief for me the fact that people touch each other regularly, something of which I'd lost sight. Plus, it was a great, catchy song.
After the show was over, I drove Thers back to his studio apartment so he wouldn't have to take the train that humid Miami night. It was one of those nights where you just know things are changing under your feet with every word you say, with every inch of pavement. By the time we got to his parking lot, the whole story was just gushing out in waves. I was less surprised than I should have been when he kissed me for the first time, and my response (banging my head against the steering wheel and saying "fuck, fuck, fuck") would be comprehensible to anyone who's ever been in such a situation. Within two weeks, I was out of my house and in the studio apartment, and aside from hospitalization and academic travel, we've not been apart since.
And so Magnapop belongs, for me, to that alarming, exciting, transitional phase of my life. I blame them for waking the sleeping demons of desire for intimacy that my marriage had anaesthetized. And the fact that it all happened on that one night: sometimes life just works like that.
The promise of Hot Boxing didn't really translate into commercial success for the band, but that's true of so much of the music I like that it's hardly worth noting. There were two follow-up records, then nothing.
Until this year's Mouthfeel. Linda Cooper's vocals are as acerbic as ever, Ruthie Morris's guitar as gritty and sweet. It's a great, interesting record, and is garnering great reviews. (I particularly like "Smile 4 U" and "Stick It To Me.") Last month, they played a show in DC at which barely 100 people showed up: what a crime.
As Magnapop took the stage and began to charge through their set, squeezing as much as they could into the brief time they were allotted, it was easy to see why musicians like Stipe and Mould were so enamored by them (and why you should be too). The songs are smart and possess a distinct edge. Ruthie Morris's guitar has more than enough crunch to provide a counterbalance to Linda Hopper's catchy pop hooks. Seeing the band on stage was a little nostalgic, but the show was too engaging and the sound too fresh to wander too far into the past.
About three fourths of the way through the show Magnapop paused to praise the newly retired Guided by Voices and play their version of "Game of Pricks". Although Magnapop didn't perform the song with quite the drunken swagger of Robert Pollard, they did do it more than justice.
They've just finished a little tour, and I'm going to keep my eyes wide open to see if they're playing around again. They've been too important in my life for me to miss them.