Ring in the Season

It rained for just one night to persuade everyone to stay home, but it didn't work: Sunday morning there were skidmark squiggles through the puddles all across my street, autographs by the drunks honking their horns late Saturday night. 2005 felt so used, everything I didn't really want in 2004 back but even cheaper—if ever there was a night to run out the clock and listen to cheap cars popcorn-popping as they squealed and bounced into each other outside, well, I would have slept through it anyway. And I did. But before I went to sleep I went out to my last live show of 2005. It was a pickup show for this guy Miguel Mendez, a longhair weird-beard with fat white dunks in person but some kind of savant on his eight-track; I'd been picking up his demos whenever I could, which was about once a year when he came to town and gave a few out. I'd never seen him actually put his songs together, so I couldn't tell if he was the type who just stacked up layer and layer of guitar on piano and then shuffled off to find a sandwich, or if he was the type who pecked at the cue buttons until he hit a combination that matched, but he had these little CDRs that I'd keep in my car's ashtray where he sang in a funky Jonathan Richman baritone about various people he knew and delivered most of the only songs I'd heard all year. And until this year and his first record (My Girlfriend Is Meltingon I and Ear), he didn't have anything to his name besides those CDRs and a song he'd lent to dios (malos) that ended up on Fox TV's The O.C. But he had songs unrecorded too, which I somehow thought I knew anyway; a credit to his writing that he could find a song in someone's head they didn't know they had. After a year of songs that fell in strings of lifeless gibberish, it was like someone calling me by name.

In fact, someone had to call me up and tell me about the show. So I went and sat at the one table with the girls Miguel had probably known in high school (he was from Long Beach and went to Poly) and watched him follow some System of a Down bite band that honestly didn't even have music—just a really loud snare drum and about six guys playing competing solos with their thumbs, plus a singer with the worst kind of retail-rack stage presence; guy was as desperate as a ferret.

Anyway, Miguel went next and stood there with his guitar and, wow, were people underwhelmed—famous musical people, even, people whose names I omit for grace and decorum: “I'm not seeing this,” said one. “Well, he's a four-track guy,” I said. “Oh, I could see that,” he said. So ouch, huh? Without the halo he'd lit around his demos, Miguel just looked like your regular dirty dude, and if I didn't know his songs already, I would have just sipped a drink. But I did know the songs, and they went like this, specific and familiar both for so many nights:

No one's to blame
It's just automatic
Oh, what a shame
Ring in the season
Re-light the flame
When everyone's drunk
We'll dance even though
We lost the tempo
And lost all our sense
To words that we meant
With uncommon passion
Often misused.


What everyone says we are is the truth
What can we do but . . .
Hope that what we make
Is good enough . . .
We've learned by now to let it go
Before it just brings us all down.

Clap-clap, everyone said. Clap. Then he got his backing band out—buddies from here, whose names I omit for no reason—and they were variously out of tune in several directions, a dissonant beehive hum so perfect they didn't try to correct it, and when that rattled out—well, it was a lot of polite drunks that night. Clap. But what do you do?

The thing that shocked me about Jonathan Richman when I first heard him was how forthright he was: “I'm lonely and I don't have a girlfriend and I don't mind!” His voice was just tongue and adenoid, and any poetry he'd put in his songs came in huge unwieldy chunks, but there was such honesty to it—if everything else I'd heard didn't seem basic and fake, it was either calculated into meaninglessness or just too confused and curled-up to make any sense in the first place. I didn't and don't feel like an unreasonable listener, but so much music out there just gave me nothing, and while I was sympathetic at least to the nothing singers who couldn't help it, there wasn't much either of us could do for each other. But people like Richman: they had some weight to them, they said what they meant (even if it was something like “I'm in love with the power that resides in your eyes”), and it sat there solid and heavy, something you could trust to last. Miguel did that too: said what he meant, let it sit out there to last, awkward or not. And I didn't want this to be an apology review-or-advertisement-for-his-good-new-record, so good thing in the last song his band really caught it: this one was so unrecorded I had no idea it even existed, but it had a simple hook—sweet rock N roll/it'll save your soul; that kind of style—and then piano notes running in streams up the walls and still it didn't seem like people were really noticing—this big rolling outro that finally found the same weight and momentum that Miguel found on his demos all by himself, a last few moments of song that made a small sun for a second then popped and cooled and that was it.

Clap. For me it was clap-clap-clap and more, but you know me: I'm a soft touch for anybody who can gut it out like that. I wish I had that song to listen to for later, but nope—next year, next record, something to look forward to.

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