Book of love. Photo by Wendy Lynch
Book of love. Photo by Wendy Lynch

Something Better Beginning

Matt Sharp was just about 11 or 12 and in seventh grade just outside of Arlington, Virginia, and every day he would go to school and fight like crazy for the Kinks. They were the one, he says now, that he was really obsessive about, and although that seems precociously literate for an age where the little hooks on bras still defy calculation, that's how it was, he says. He would go to school and argue, and his platform was that Ray Davies was a better lyricist than anybody else—"Seventh grade and fighting for a group on the basis of lyrical ability!" he laughs—and every day he would push the Kinks against the guys who liked the Stones or the Who or whoever.

The Kinks were really strange, he says now, right there with the Beatles and the Stones and the Who, but also a tiny notch below—the underdog British Invasion band, with the British Invasion's most dog-housed underdog Dave Davies suffering long on the second guitar. And maybe Sharp has felt a little kinksy himself sometime since. He once played bass in that band Weezer, and that band Weezer did what it did and does what it does, mostly without Sharp, who left Weezer after their two best records and then sued Weezer and then even publicly reconciled with Weezer's Rivers Cuomo at a 2004 solo show at a "90210 Peach Pit thing" at Cal State Fullerton: "Someone spotted Rivers out of the corner of their eye and suddenly everyone was on their cell phones," he says.

Now Rivers and Weezer raydavies around in Rolling Stone and Matt Sharp and supporting cast have resurrected Sharp's own underdog pop band the Rentals, who in 1995 named their first-ever album Return of the Rentals as a half-joke but who now return for real to davedavies their own sad songs for stuttering synthesizers. If they are a tiny notch below, they are loved more for it. On this real-return tour, a girl came up to Sharp in Milwaukee and said she had been waiting since she was 7 years old to see the Rentals. He mentions her three times—a little rattled, a little grateful.

"We played a show the other night in Portland, and there was a picture on the wall of Jefferson Starship, who ended up being Starship and who started out as Jefferson Airplane," he says. "And they all had like super-striped shirts and headbands and all the very '80s stuff, and when I looked at the photo, I thought it was so interesting—probably 10 or 15 years before that photo, they'd been at Woodstock. I thought, 'Everything has changed for this group.' All the instruments, the kind of music they play, the sound of the songs, the way they produce albums, the way they sing their songs—every aspect had changed. And when I go through the radio sometimes, it seems like music isn't that far away from where the Rentals were. The haircuts haven't changed."

And though people sometimes like to really hack at them—in Seattle, says Sharp, one heckler was just shouting the word "NOSTALGIA!" and how, he asks, baffled, do you deal with that?—he's right, though the haircuts have degenerated. The Sharp-era Weezer albums—Cheap Trick with a thumb on the turntable and Jonathan Richman's dateless earnestness—must have provoked as many lunch-table roundtables as the Kinks did for young Sharp and friends, and the Rentals were the next step past Weezer, a superconcentration of that slowly churning guitar-pop sound into a deadpan band that didn't do sweater songs. Instead, the Rentals were at their best when they burned down to the basics, with a Moog and a string section in a pit of distortion and reading their downer girl/boy lyrics off a teleprompter: "Hard as it may be/I know you should be with me."

For a certain kind of fan, that is the kind of thing that will last a very long time. And Sharp is soft-spoken and humble about it, worrying about the reconstituted Platters on a Motown package-deal tour—the returned Rentals have only Sharp and Rachel Haden from the original line-up—but loving how the audiences outsing his lyrics back to him, something he says he definitely never experienced before, and how someone can come up to him and tell him that she's been waiting since she was 7 to see this band. He had restarted the Rentals with new and softer material—more the strings and synths than that tank-clank guitar—as a next step in a private discography that (like the Kinks!) even took a turn into country. But then he realized he had to rearrange some of the old songs, too: "We spent so much time thinking where we could go, but I thought it was important to figure out where we were from," he says.

So think of the Kinks. He was so attached, remembers Sharp, that he would stand up for everybody else in the Kinks besides Ray Davies—fight for a bass player whose name he can't even remember now against John Entwistle, or for Mick Avory against Keith Moon, and who can make that, he says? But he would do it out of duty: "They'd say 'You're crazy!"' he says. "But I remember those duels very fondly. It was a very sacred thing."



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