Keep on smiling, what we go through

On the dirtbag optimism of Richard Linklater and (gulp) Third Eye Blind

We all have concerts whose accreted sense memories will never fade, no matter the advancing of the years, the amnesiac effect of designer drugs and cheap beer. One of those for me, I’m sorry to say, is the time I saw Third Eye Blind. The band was the afternoon headliner of my college’s annual spring festival, where they attracted maybe two or three thousand chaotically intoxicated students packed together on the muddy, grass field overlooking Lake Michigan. My friends and I were among them, though we weren’t there to see Third Eye Blind, ha ha, are you kidding — we were waiting for Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, scheduled to perform afterwards. In fact Third Eye Blind’s booking had inspired among us the judgmental riffing endemic to most 19-year-old Pitchfork readers, who could not understand how anyone could want to see Third Eye Blind!?!?!??! in the year 2008 when there was so much great music out there, including Ted Leo. The sight of such a dense crowd inspired shock and awe and the foreboding feeling that maybe we’d picked the wrong interests, culturally speaking.

A couple of things I remember from this show: I immediately ruined my shoes in the mud. Third Eye Blind did a 10-minute version of “Jumper” that included a bass solo and a drum solo and a brief interpolation of Nelly’s “E.I.,” a convergence of elements I have thought about once a month for the last 12 years. They were supposed to go on for 90 minutes, but in fact played for two hours because the crowd reacted to every song, whose every word they knew, like a kindergarten class meeting Barney. A casualty of this extra half hour was Ted Leo’s set, truncated by that amount of time, and played before a crowd of what might have been 75 people maximum on this gigantic grassy field, because the moment Third Eye Blind was over nearly everyone went back to the dorms to re-up their chaotic intoxication. Nonetheless, Ted Leo performed as though he were in front of a sweaty club crowd of diehard obsessives because he’s a consummate professional, and also because I think our communal sense of guilt over the vacated field was so profound we really wanted to seem enthusiastic. Still, more than once I caught his vacant expression in between songs and thought, “There is also a man who is also wondering if he’s picked the wrong interests, culturally speaking.”

Third Eye Blind closed, obviously, with “Semi-Charmed Life,” a song I disdained then but which I’ve listened to maybe 50 times in the last few weeks, first because it shuffled up on my algorithmic Apple Music playlist, and the next 49 or so times because I quite seriously believed it was the only song that ably crystallized the contemporary American mood, as well as my own. Or in terms the average Twitter user might appreciate: When Stephan Jenkins sang “I want something else to get me through this / semi-charmed kind of life” ….….….….….….….….….….….….….….….…. I felt that.

More specifically it’s the bouncy riff, the doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo harmonizing, the cheery commingling of unearned sarcasm and soul-coring malaise in Jenkins’ voice, the sticky rap-rock cadence of his delivery, the Kiedis-ian lyrics that at first sound like pure gibberish but upon close reading are revealed as a fairly bleak and, okay, mostly gibberish chronicling of a couple’s crystal meth addiction. “Semi-Charmed Life” hit #4 on the charts in 1997, and while magazine articles and High Fidelity have led me to believe the ’90s were a musical breeding ground for existential brattiness and this chart success perhaps wasn’t so unique, the fact that so many people actively listened to and identified with a song about craving something to distract from the occasional misery of life makes me feel, I don’t know, nostalgic. Especially in a moment like this.

Jenkins is by some accounts a boorish asshole so I don’t want to confuse the resonant elements of this song for actual genius, though if you write a mildly subversive song that millions of people remember forever you’re higher on the totem pole than your typical Silicon Valley investor. When I was thinking about why this song of all songs was hitting me at the moment, I semi-jokingly located the tension between his not-so-performative shitheadedness (both in the song and outside) and 3EB’s buoyant melodies as “dirtbag optimism.” While plenty of pop music cloaks bleak songwriting inside cheery musicality (the #1 song this year is the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” for example) there’s something about the timbre in Jenkins’ voice and that scuzzy, generic guitar tone that recalls to me every scatterbrained stoner I’ve ever known who definitely believed 9/11 was an inside job, and who not-infrequently says something well-intentioned but hysterically problematic, and who is regardless a totally endearing figure because of his beaming cluelessness.

Maybe that’s too specific, but then there’s also this relevant Rob Whisman joke about the coalition for dumb leftists — guys with the right moral instincts to want a better world for everyone, though they aren’t particularly well-versed on any of the specifics. Jenkins really does seem like a jerk, but he’s also a fairly vocal anti-Trump, Bernie-leaning Democrat — nice to find out, I guess. But you’d rather have those guys with you than not, for better or worse, and maybe we also need a new “Semi-Charmed Life” to rope in the rest of the nation’s dirtbag optimists. Or so I thought, during my particularly circuitous mood where I thought about how the Republicans have further pitched politics toward this exhausting game of power collecting and trading, and while that’s good and fine if you’re a loser who did debate in high school, it’s just kind of exasperating for the rest of us. Spare me the insider testimony of politics knowers who insist this is how it is, and you have to get smart if you want to play — sure, maybe if you work in politics, but as a civilian who’s just sick of all these assholes, my ongoing feeling is “give me a break.”

Relatedly, I spent the last few weeks brushing up on my Texas punk knowledge for this interview with Pat Blashill, a photographer/music writer who came up in the Austin scene, and produced an fairly incredible book collecting all his photos and stories of this indelible period in the American underground. During the research process I wound up watching several films by Richard Linklater, who was also a part of this scene and provided a foreword contextualizing it for the book. One relevant passage: “The natural response to the Reagan years was to just zone out, ignore, and withdraw from that ugly, regressive, materialistic, yuppie culture that—despite the phony optimism, shades, and thumbs up—was permeated by a Cold War apocalyptic undertone. Fuck all that.”

The pedant in me would point out that ignoring and withdrawing is partly how we got here — one thing the recent surge in electoral leftism highlights is how representation is actually important and without litigating too much of the complicated past, you wonder how things might have changed if the hippies hadn’t given up and/or been discouraged and/or been specifically targeted and locked up by the government and/or stifled by centrist elements overreacting to the far-right and/or whatever else (again, it’s complicated). But also I get it, because of the stories in this book and what Blashill told me about how genuinely stifling Texas was then, and how its denizens responded accordingly. In the process of watching Linklater’s films (some of which I was seeing for the first time, others of which I was rewatching for the first time since college) I picked up both that attitude, and some of the dirtbag optimism I’m talking about.

Specifically in Everybody Wants Some!!, maybe the most purely entertaining new movie I’ve seen in quarantine. The movie centers around the U.T. Austin baseball team in 1980, right as Reagan is about to win the election, though that’s never mentioned. Like Dazed and Confused, another ensemble piece set in Austin (and specifically 1976, which would place then-rising freshman Mitch Kramer at the start of college by the time Everybody Wants Some!! begins), there’s no particularly propulsive plot beyond “look at these people hang out.” And because most of the people we see are jocks, what we get is himbo exceptionalism run wild: Some of the guys are a little rough, and definitely sort of dumb, but they’re all fairly sweet and emotionally attuned in different ways toward the necessity of brotherhood, camaraderie, open-mindedness, sexual freedom, etc. (One jock registers surprise that a woman he hooked up with the night before is now flirting with someone else, and his brother responds with something like — I’m paraphrasing — “Hey, women have the right to be as slutty as we are.” Mensch!)

This is perhaps somewhat magical thinking given what we know about the politics of your average baseball team (and hell, definitely in ’80s Texas) but this good-natured positivity and quest for self-knowledge is so predominant in Linklater’s movies that one concludes it’s maybe the core theme of his work, how to exemplify this ideal without being corny or maudlin or too unrealistic. Everybody Wants Some!! is wonderful because it’s funny and genuine, but also because Linklater is consistently subverting your expectations of how you’d expect these entitled jocks to behave, along those themes I just mentioned.

One example: There’s a scene where Jake, the protagonist and ace pitcher, is walking around with some of his teammates, and he runs into a former high school friend who’s now a punk. They have a nice reunion, and the punk invites him and the guys to a show later that night. Going in, I expected some kind of standoff: the punks would reject the jocks, nobody would have a good time, maybe there’d be a fight. But that doesn’t happen at all. Some of the jocks feel out of place, but they mostly just hang out in the background (as you’d do, if you felt out of place but didn’t want to cause a scene). The other jocks throw themselves into the music, and have a wonderful time, and meditate on their identity when they’re not moshing.

When I spoke with Blashill, we talked about the frats vs. punks dichotomy in Austin, which he described as particularly violent. “Frats and punks were perennial enemies,” he said. “The frat boys were constantly hunting punk rockers, sometimes hurting us. The punks would sometimes get some revenge by setting a dumpster on fire, and shoving it into a frat party or something.” I brought up Everybody Wants Some!!, which he hadn’t seen, and how it renders that expected tension somewhat healthily, to which he said: “That sounds a lot like Rick’s film to me. He likes that aspect of looking at people who are in conflict, and then it sort of takes a real left turn and everything’s okay.”

Everybody Wants Some!! and Slacker and Dazed and Confused and Boyhood and even School of Rock are just movies but excuse me for seeing the necessity of that, especially coming from a Texas liberal who grew up there during some real bad years. Politics may be power, and conflict may be necessary on the main stage, and blah blah blah… but for the rest of us, getting along with each other is sort of all there is. I don’t know how much that adds up to, given everything we’re against, but I know Linklater’s made a whole lot of movies about why it’s a worthwhile pursuit. This month, during the home stretch of what’s been a particularly awful period in American politics, and will probably be even worse in the next couple of weeks, I was grateful to be reminded.