“I used to be good, but now I’m bad”

Japandroids go further into that good night // A note on Air Gordon pt. 2

Let’s say the seventh best concert I’ve ever attended took place April 9, 2010, at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, when Japandroids came to town behind their debut Post-Nothing album. Because they combined “unbelievably kick-ass rock n’ roll” with “being sad about death and girls,” and because at the time I was a 21-year-old who’d just finished the collected works of Roberto Bolaño, they made some of my favorite music in the world. There exists, somewhere in my Twitter archives, a post around this time where I tweeted “JAPANDROIDS - I QUIT GIRLS” around 4 a.m., when I’d melodramatically decided it was time to quit girls because of some infinitesimally devastating event I couldn’t possibly recount now, but nonetheless chose to broadcast this to my 18 followers. The short of it is that they were important to me, and so I was very fired up for this show. Some things I remember: I attended with my best friend, Matthew. We were extraordinarily drunk. The audience was, conservatively, 90% male. We sang along to, conservatively, 80% of the lyrics. Afterwards, we ate burritos and I walked home to my mom’s house and passed out.

The events and emotions I’ve described also roughly constitute the lyrics to “Younger Us,” a song from Japandroids’ second album Celebration Rock that I’ve — full disclosure — never been able to fully enjoy. For one, when this record came out in 2012 I was 23 years old, and still the “younger” the band fondly remembered. (The band members themselves had not even hit 30, I believe.) The kick-ass rock n’ roll was there, sure, but I felt an acute distance from the lyrics, since it struck me as mildly pathetic to feel nostalgic for “the good old days” at that age, which for me would’ve meant high school (fun, don’t need to go back) or college (fun, just left). On top of that, the nostalgia Japandroids described was mostly oriented toward “getting drunk,” which the band still did in the present. Lyrics from “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” another song from that record: “We're drinking / And we're still smoking.” If you miss getting drunk while you’re still getting drunk? Maybe… you are an alcoholic.

Something I’ve said in the last few years, which I still believe to be true: Japandroids are the most embarrassing band I love the most. This is not performance, or indication of some “guilty pleasure” worldview that might also include Coldplay, sports video games where I create myself as a 6’6 point guard with the handles of Magic Johnson and the shooting touch of Steph Curry, the collected filmography of Zooey Deschanel, etc. (For one, I find Coldplay far less embarrassing.) The tension I feel with Japandroids is a continued love of their music — to reiterate again, rock n’ roll that kicks ass, but I guess if we want to get specific a dedication to spirit-stirring noise that can rouse you to fight a helicopter with your bare hands — with a growing suspicion of their lyrics, which reify all the facets of rock n’ roll mythology that I’ve grown increasingly distant from in my adulthood, and beyond that are just sort of cornily overwritten.

Japandroids’ songs are rife with valorization of alcoholism, valorization of mystical women, valorization of hot chicks, valorization of staying out late and driving across the country and feeling weird about your dad or whatever — stuff that’s all fine here and there, but in the band’s aggregate execution suffers from what I’m defining now as Springsteen Syndrome, or the attempt to elevate the mundane through mawkish romanticism. For example, the lyrics to “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”:

“Kissed me like a chorus.” I don’t have to say much more. Before I looked it up, in my head that was “kissed me like a poem,” an infinitely worse line that I believed they were capable of writing.

Not to keep ganging up on Japandroids, a band I genuinely continue to enjoy. This week I’ve been listening to MASSEY F***ING HALL, their new live album, a genre I reliably love because watching a band you love perform live expands your appreciation for those songs, and reproducing that experience at home is literally the next best thing. Specifically, live albums allow you to travel through time and put yourself in the shoes of the people who actually attended those shows, a psychic transference of body and spirit that inevitably leads one to comment “I was born in the wrong generation” on a video of Jimmy Page humping his guitar with a violin bow. One can even draw historical observations from this displacement: Compare the tempo and tenor of Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 (where he performed for a small, rapturous Black audience) and Sam Cooke at the Copa (where he performed for a white, affluent audience).

So when I listen to MASSEY F***ING HALL I’m also thinking about that 2010 show with Matthew, along with their return to Lincoln Hall in 2012, their performance at the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival, and their performance at the 2018 Pitchfork Music Festival, all of which I attended and all of which I’d confidently describe as “subjectively fun because I got drunk and sang along but increasingly not good by any objective standard.” The consensus on Japandroids is that they perform worse the longer a tour goes on: They really are still drinking and smoking, like they sing, and the more you drink and smoke when performing every other night and road-tripping across the country, the more your performance will suffer. It’s just math. So all of these shows, coming chronologically after 2010, featured a diminished version of the band. They sung in a lower register; they played slower; they dropped harmonies; they constantly fucked up their timing, a big no-no considering there’s just two members, and often their songs hinge on pinpoint start-stop precision. MASSEY F***ING HALL suffers from the same issues, which reviewers have pointed as pretext to wonder if (adjusts monocle) Japandroids were ever a good live band to begin with.

Maybe not. But I suspect some experiential bias here, as their critics have continued to grow up, and become more aware of the backlash to “rock n’ roll,” a genre that for decades has laundered the worst excesses of the male ego, like drinking to unconsciousness and pining after mysterious women you can’t actually define beyond “ugh… she’s so hot… I’m so sad.” Judged against contemporary trends in the independent music scene that once elevated them, Japandroids seem archaic; it’s much easier to archly point out their flaws from a remove, as I am doing now, to subtly identify as more intelligent and educated.

Well, all power to those who don’t drink or smoke or pine, but I can’t pretend that stuff never mattered to me just because I chose to hang left a long time ago. The lyrics may be occasionally risible or outright insulting — don’t even get me started on “Wet Hair,” in which they juxtapose “bikini girls” (fun, sexy) with “Bikini Kill” (boring, feminist), and which I misheard up until 2015 or so when I looked it up — but the music still does something vital for me, which is to conceive of rock n’ roll as an elemental force that can armor you with great courage and spirit. So what if they drop harmonies and play slower and can’t really sing? Everything gets worse over time, except video game technology. “I used to be good, but now I’m bad,” they sing in “Near to the Wild Heart of Life,” a line that on some days strikes me as the greatest rock line of all-time, and on other days strikes me as the dumbest shit ever. The difference is often very hard to tell.

You can read that line as moral commentary, but I don’t even think it’s a cheeky slight to point out how it mirrors Japandroids’ arc as a functioning rock unit, or at least how they’re viewed as one. The members of this band aren’t rubes. They know they don’t sound as good as they used to. They know trends have passed them by. (An awareness that perhaps led them to talk a lot about Clarice Lispector, from whom they cribbed the title of Near to the Wild Heart of Life from: See, we can engage intelligently with women and their art!) Still, there they are, drinking and smoking and gently declining into that good night. Someone has to do it, even if it’s embarrassing or out of step. At the moment, I would pay hundreds of dollars to attend this kind of vivifying, variable concert where I consume 3-6 drinks and sing along a little and wonder if, at the end, it kind of sucked or if I’ve just gotten older, if rock is really dead or just gently napping. Instead, we have the next best thing.

Up until a couple months ago I was employed at The Outline, a site I am nearly done talking about. Since then I’ve been freelancing, and working on a couple of longer writing projects I’d like to say more about in the next few months, and thinking fondly about “blogging,” that erstwhile ‘00s trend that is now making a comeback via platforms like these.

One of the more formative writing experiences of my life was my sustained participation in “Music Tumblr,” a loose community of music writers professional and aspiring that existed robustly from 2008-2011, and then in a diminished form until about 2014 or so. My handle on that Tumblr was “Air Gordon,” because I’m from Chicago and a semi-drunk thing I semi-earnestly said to a friend last weekend was: “How do I describe growing up in Chicago when Michael Jordan was playing? It’s like if Jesus Christ, the son of God, was… from Chicago.”

More crucially, though, Music Tumblr thrived because you had this wonderful mix of writers who just sort of sat around and discoursed all day long in 200-1700 word blog posts, which as an amateur you could actually contribute to. It eventually waned because most of those writers realized they could be paid actual money to write those blog posts for publications, instead of working for free, and also because Twitter became a much more interactive, immediately gratifying platform. A decade later the publication model has collapsed, or at least tilted those once freewheeling blog posts in a pedantic direction: You can’t just write about Something these days, it’s got to be How Something Explains Coronavirus, and so forth. (Exceptions exist, and thank God for them.)

So ironically, a decade later I’ve returned to the blogging model. Ergo “Air Gordon pt. 2,” since I’m hoping this might serve as a sequel to that first effort. Mostly I’ll use this space to write the kinds of things I liked to do at the Outline: discursive ruminations on modern culture that I find interesting or at least attention-grabbing, occasionally without any news peg or angle. Maybe sometimes I’ll talk a little shit. I don’t want to be as ambitious as to talk about a “paid model” because I’d like to keep it low stakes for now, but let’s say the future is unwritten and there’s a lot of things I could do here if it seems appropriate. In the meantime your support is greatly appreciated, and feel free to reach out about anything.