Has a song ever changed your life?
Did you ever wonder how?
A story of music and comics, told in two parts with multiple divergences.
PART THE FIRST
If you come here with any regularity, you are aware of the role music plays in my life. If you’ve read more than six entries, or seen my ubiquitous fitted cap in photos, you can guess what sort of music dominates my listening habits.
So it might surprise you to learn my previous musical endeavours were of a less funky variety. For three glorious summers, the band was my life, and to this day I’m foolish enough to believe we could have reached a level of ‘club tour’ fame. But it fell apart for all the reasons any band falls apart, and I threw my meagre energies to other pursuits.
What’s notable in this little anecdote isn’t that I was a hip-hop fan playing drums in a post-metal band, it’s that I was a britpop fan playing in that band.
Embrace my shame.
Back in 2002, A Tribe Called Quest was long broken up, hip-hop was getting crunk, Nelly was telling us to take off all our clothes and Kanye was two years from dropping out of college. Plus, a lack of supportive club nights or fan community in the city I lived further alienated me from the music and culture I was most drawn to. American rock wasn’t much better, with the debut of Avril Lavigne and the garage rock renaissance, so I looked overseas. It was not an easy thing to accept.
You need to understand, my relationship with Britpop has always been…tumultuous? My first prolonged exposure came from a woman I used to commute to university with during my undergrad years. Every day, without fail, Sophie would pop in a tape packed with English pop and dance music. And I loathed it. Some of the techno I could deal with, your Orbitals, your Underworlds, but the actual bands made me nauseous: all that posturing, the drama, Jarvis Cocker’s cheekbones in the video for Common People, it was all so artificial, and I was still coming down from the reality high of the mid-90s which is its own brand of opiate.
But in 2002, some music that interested me started to trickle across the waters, the bands who would come to be known as my ‘Winter Music’, lots of acoustic and echo-laced guitars perfect for those cold Ontario weekends when the sun goes down at 4.45 in the afternoon and you can’t be bothered to leave the house. Bands like Travis, which begat Coldplay, which begat Delays and so on and so forth. They were my gateway drug, of sorts, and as anyone who’s seen me track down samples knows, I do love my musical anthropology, and working back from these cute folksy bands took me somewhere I didn’t expect.
Oh, Manic Street Preachers. I was already familiar [and enamoured] with the band’s narrative, which went like this:
- Quartet combines Guns n’ Roses guitar shredding with glam rock fashion sense and socialist politics.
- Rhythm guitarist and chief lyricist Richey Edwards [he who carved ‘4 REAL’ into his own arm in front of a journalist who questioned his authenticity, how could a 90s baby not love him?] vanishes in 1995, a suspected suicide, though his body is never found.
- The band, now a trio, ditches most of the glam fashion and releases a
triumph of an album called ‘Everything Must Go’ in 1996, and morph into the elder statesmen of British Rock.
The tragedy! The triumph! Something about it all just fell into place for me. From 2004-2005 if you received a mixtape from me, it usually started with A Design for Life, and you loved it.
Loving the Manics allowed me to take a more forgiving look at the rest of mid-90s britpop, and to my surprise, I didn’t hate it. My band, with its own flair for the dramatic, couldn’t ignore the influence that bands like Depeche Mode and The Cure had on us, and incorporated covers by those bands to pad out our sets. I came to appreciate the lyrical skill of Common People and Parklife, hell I even came to terms with Morrissey [a reconciliation you can read about here]. Even now, as a bona fide disciple in the church of hip-hop, I still hold those songs in special consideration, whether they were musical accompaniment to a night of riotous dancing, or opportunities to make fun of Sophie until she pulled the car over and threatened to kick me out of the car, laughing until I couldn’t breathe; I can’t deny the role those songs have played in my life.
PART THE SECOND
If you come here with any regularity, you also know I have a sort of love/hate relationship with comics. Where they once bought me joy in the age of the Jemas/Quesada’s Marvel, the shift to intellectual property manufacturers and movie factories left me feeling cold and conned. Frankly, I can’t wait to be gone with most of them [seriously, if you’re looking for most of what DC and Marvel put out between 2000-2005, as well as notable series from the 80s and 90s, call me]. I still read the superhero trades at work when I see something of interest because I can do that for free, which is about the only way I would. I really don’t feel like there’s anything left for me in comics. Superheroes long ago lost their lustre, since ‘cash grab’ is a subtext to so much of the Big Two’s publication output. Alt-comix [really, is there anything more awful than spelling comics with an ‘x’?] spend too much time ponderously studying their own navels with [most of the time] infantile art accompanying, celebrated for telling stories unique to comics but have been covered better in other media. And don’t even talk to me about manga.
But I have always had a soft spot for music comics. Even if I’m fortunate enough to sell my entire collection [please? anyone?], I would hold on to series like Blue Monday, Hopeless Savages, Pounded and Demo. I would gladly trade a dozen longboxes for one shortbox filled with these miniseries, filed and stored like favourite albums.
And joining them would be Phonogram.
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram was a book I had heard of as I was getting out of the comics game, but never read. I just knew it was that book with classic albums for covers. Never thought about it since, until both collections showed up at work this week.
It’s a masterpiece. It’s not perfect, but it’s a fucking sight better than most.
That question posed at the start of the entry is the central premise of Phonogram, and the answer is: magic. Music is magic, and the people who can manipulate that magic are known as Phonomancers. In book one [Rue Britannia], a Phonomancer named David Kohl is charged by something called ‘The Goddess’ with finding out what’s happened to one of her ‘aspects’: Britannia, the spirit of 90s britpop. In the second book [The Singles Club], one night at an indie club is told from the perspective of seven different Phonomancers in attendance, most new to the series.
All the characters in the book have ridiculous names and most of them are awful as people just like every other pretentious rock snob, but they couldn’t be any other way and be believable as people. They get their powers through music, they need to believe the music they utilize is the most ‘powerful’, or at least convince others it is. So many of us when we’re 19, 20, 21 centre our whole identity around the music we love.
But Gillen knows how fragile a conceit that is, and most of the characters fall apart under it: Penny wilts in the face of any sort of conflict; Marc can’t forget the sexually free girl who broke him; Lloyd dreams of a woman he can control musically; Laura talks in other people’s quotations. The only character who seems totally at ease with himself is Kid With Knife, a hip-hop fan and friend of David Kohl’s who isn’t a Phonomancer outright, and doesn’t devote 1,000 word monologues on the value of the music he likes, he just gets really amped when TV on the Radio comes on. He is who he is, and he knows who he is, which makes him the only character worthy of a happy ending.
All this gushing doesn’t even address that the books come with a damn glossary in the back to explain who Kula Shaker and The Long Blondes are, or the fact that for the first time in five years I feel compelled to find the original issues, just so I can read the essays and backup stories that were willfully left out of the collections to encourage sales of the single issues.
But as I said earlier, it’s not flawless by any means. Even with my higher than passing knowledge of 90s britpop, I still needed the glossary most of the time [which caused me to suffer a total existential crisis when confusing Kula Shaker and Cornershop, true story], so it’s probably prohibitive to someone with no knowledge. It also ascribes to the David Simon school of ‘fuck you’ storytelling, which drops you in the middle of the world to figure out for yourself what’s going on and the nature of the relationships. Pro: it respects your intelligence as a reader. Con: you have no idea what’s going on some of the time [seriously, what’s a coven, really?] It’s also whiter than Bonnaroo, despite the appreciation of Spector-produced girl groups and early Motown and Emily Aster’s assertion that she was into Luniz in another life [not buying it]. None of this makes the book worth passing on, it’s a safe bet there are hip-hop clubs all over England where phonomancers are tagging walls with their minds, or raves where the sense of communion doesn’t come from narcotics, but our story is with these people, and this is the music these people like, which is what Gillen likes, which is why the narrative is so compelling, even if I won’t be in a hurry to buy all the songs played in the book [Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death From Above is a pointless piece of disco fluff. Which might be the point, but I don’t need to hear it more than once].
By most of Gillen’s accounts, Phonogram is done. The cost of putting the book out is almost prohibitive for him and McKelvie. While I understand that, it’s a total shame. So much of the world they’ve created has been left unexplored [the uncollected backup stories leave me optimistic but not comforted], and it’s saddening to know that a book that has shot so high up my my list of favourites will never be again. Maybe one day Gillen can take some of that Marvel money he’s making these days and we’ll get another series out of him. But I’m not holding my breath.
Throughout the first volume of Phonogram, there’s a subplot concerning the ghostly image of a woman named Beth, standing at Severn Bridge, ‘waiting for Richey’. At the end of the book is a beautiful meditation on what Richey means, the symbolism of his disappearance, the value in cherishing the past but not wallowing in it.
Last winter, for the first time in over a decade, the Manic Street Preachers toured North America, stopping at the Phoenix here in Toronto. The occasion was the release of Journal for Plague Lovers, an album written around lyrics Richey James gave to the band shortly before his disappearance.
Clearly, the album and tour were a sort of ‘full circle victory lap’, harkening back to the glory days of The Holy Bible while getting a certain level of closure to Richey’s disappearance, something the band never really seemed to fully get over, even at their most triumphant. The whole night felt like closing a book that needed to be closed, and as James sang The Everlasting accompanied by nothing but an acoustic guitar and the crowd, I stood in the balcony, thinking of a girl I used to know a long time ago who also vanished and closed my own book.
But when I hear that song, I’m right back there again, riding through the scorching county in her beat-ass Ford Tempo with no AC, muggy wind whipping through the cabin, listening to one of a dozen CDs I made for her, pointlessly in love with her and knowing she’d never feel the same. I’m right back there.
Tell me that’s not magic.