Only One Life

Fully a third of recorded music between 1948 and 1956 was about how much the guys making the music enjoyed making the music, and the remainder was about what they did with the remainder of their days—drinks they drank, food they ate, girls they pestered and punctured, sort of a schedule for life at its liveliest ideal, and what lively days those were. Richard Meltzer would say: “There was once something rare, precious and beautiful about the utterances of rock N roll people,” and isn't there some finality in that sentence? Makes you wanna leave flowers.

He called it primacy and I'm not sure what to call it myself but I think I miss the same thing—ridiculously genuine songs about impulse (“Take your money and put it in a bank/you got it made or so you THANK!”) or circumstance (“Miss Maggie Ann, my car won't start again!”) or just ridiculousness (“Sweet words of pizmotality/and discuss the puppetutes of love/and put 'em together and whatdayou have?”) and there isn't a very long line of people who remember how or why to try and keep this up. Jonathan Richman is America's angel about this and he says: “The USA has changed somehow that I can't name…/A cold cold era has begun/things were bad before/there was lots of loneliness/but in 1965 it was not like this!”

So summary says: they don't make them like they used to and that's why Matt McCluer has to make it on his own. A lot of the middle wave of American rock N roll (post-“Heartbreak Hotel,” pre-Altamont) rooted up from places not unlike Costa Mesa (Hawthorne wasn't even really as nice) so of course a little group like McCluer and friends could come up there as likely as anywhere. For a little while there, Costa Mesa had this garage full of guys just sailing on the spirit of 1965. Dirdy Birdy and Blank Tapes and Part the Clouds (and more I probably missed) and everyone with their own elastic semi-solo project and I think they saw well where they stood: “I'm the one who's waiting for snow in the summertime/snow in the summertime!” sang Jason Medina (with McCluer and Matt Adams and drummer Joel Williams behind him) and then a guitar solo just racing past—”Your Bird Can Sing” and fly a loop-the-loop out the window, too.

But it doesn't snow much in Costa Mesa so most of the recordings sort of drifted down only on self-released CDs or CDRs. McCluer had some of the best. He wrote the last half of a 2004 collab with singer Kathryn Jensen and it sounded like the Bill Fay demos that came out that same year (five stars for that and it sounds like Nick Drake, said international press) and it also sounded like Steve Took (other guy in T. Rex) and the Kinks and the weird early VU demos where the hiss sucks up half the sound and wow, what a little record. And what a nice way to meet McCluer. I don't think there's a faked line in his lyrics; there's a part in “Motel Blues” where Loudon Wainwright sings about a “Styrofoam ice bucket full of ice” and you can suddenly see a year of the guy's life, and McCluer was doing the same thing.

So this year he puts out a new record (backed variously by Adams, Medina and collaborator Sean Parent) and it's called A Good Day to Rock and it's got a rainbow all over the front, and if this was anyone else I'd already be thumbing through the joke file but McCluer makes the weather report a title track—the air is sweet, the sun is shinin'!—and makes that a love song about the opportunity to write a rock song: “Opened my eyes!” says the very first line and so McCluer wakes up because out in the street people swarming like bees/on every corner revolutionaries/yeah!

This record is McCluer's rock record but it's a gentle rock record and it sounds like the power-pop that was falling out of CBGBs in 1975, which was the fallout from all the records that came out in 1965. This is a generous genre for the auteur type: Alex Chilton and Chris Stamey or Nick Lowe or scooting farther up the calendar for Bill Fox's Mice in Ohio or David McCombs in the first few years of the Triffids, maybe the Roback brothers in Rain Parade or Robert Pollard who came in lots later with just the same sense. All these guys liked harmonies over the 4/4 drums they grew up on and they just looked around the house (“Black insects crawl on yellow walls/they seem to move but they don't move anyplace at all…”) anytime they needed a song. And Good Daycould swap with all of those: lose here, gain there, sum it out and examine the lesson learned in two minutes or so—all part of the liveliest life. “Take care/keep clean/don't tell lies about the places you've been/you've only got one life/and it's shrinking every day,” sang McCombs, and that was how you had to do it.

So McCluer's first track “I Fell Off the Earth” sounds like Warm Jets Eno and sweetheart-goodbye song “I'm Still Here” (“You're going your own way/and I'm trying not to care…”) sounds like Nerves and the included Part the Clouds songs are all three just crushers. McCluer wrote all the saddest songs for that band and they are so disarming they are paralytic. What a confessor he could be: “When you put your arms around me/I'm such a mess/I'm weaker than I used to be…” sounds so true and private I wish I'd asked permission to hear it. And follower “Lucky Ones” is so humble and thankful with simple lyrics that travel the length of McCluer's body to get out: “You/you're wonderful/more than I/could hope for/we/shall overcome/we are the lucky ones!” he sings, and out folds a year of his life. I love that the Flying Saucers guys called McCluer's place the Hippie House because certainly he is and certainly he should be, too, because hippie Jonathan said a lot of the same things in the same simple ways—that 1965 summer feeling for a good day to rock.

Good Day is a loose record but a great one and the spirit carries the way it carries lost charmers like the Scruffs or the Memphis Goons—I am told they call it lo-fi (and Good Day is actually fond of wearing a little fur) but to me this really reaches back to that ridiculous imperfect time of ridiculously genuine utterances, which probably had more fidelity than anything no matter what artifacts had to record them. All these garage alums deserve well their time to shine—”Shine (Everyone)” is even McCluer's last song, and that's where I got the idea, and the more I think about it the more I realize how he's right: “Outside in the summer sun/we are brighter than everyone . . .” Leave flowers if you want but just for congratulations.


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