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Volume 2, Issue 77: Heavy Metal Drummer
Basically everything I wrote before, oh, 2004 is completely terrible. I am not claiming what I produce on a daily basis today is genius. But boy was the old stuff shit.
This is my personal view on this, and mine is not the only one that matters. The entire "Life As a Loser" series was written before 2004, and I know those columns meant something to (a very small group of) people, and it's possible that a few of those pieces might not be wholly embarrassing today. (I will admit to being OK with this old piece about spending a weekend with Dennis Kucinich in Iowa.) But I'll be damned if I I have the stomach to read them myself. My style has changed, my perspective has changed, my whole outlook on the planet has changed. To read something I wrote before 2004 is to read something written by an entirely different person all together ... a person I have a lot of advice for, advice I know he won't listen to.
I am fortunate in one key way when it comes to those old pieces: Nobody read them. Sure, The Black Table had a dedicated phlanx of readers, but I assume all those people are dead now. I had no devoted fanbase, no bestseller, no breakout hit. I wrote all the time, but nobody cared, not really. So none of those pieces are anything I have to live up to, something fans adored decades ago and now feel nostalgia for. They're just background, practice reps I put in to prepare me for now, when there actually are a few people reading. I don't have to live up to what that old writer produced, and I don't have to ever trot him back out either. He can live comfortably obscure in the past, safely hidden in online archives that are increasingly impossible to access. He's buried in long-forgotten digital graveyards. Nobody cares what he ever had to say. And thank God for that.
This week, I went to go see Matthew Sweet in concert. If I were to make a list of the first five musical artists to break through to me growing up in Mattoon, Illinois, and make me realize there was a massive world out there that I very much wanted to explore, Matthew Sweet would absolutely be on it. (The other four: Nirvana, R.E.M., Public Enemy, Liz Phair.) "Girlfriend" came out shortly after my 16th birthday, and I spent the next summer listening to it constantly. The songs were the exact mix of alternative rock and pop for a 16-year-old figuring out what he liked, and they were always longing, yearning for some elusive love that any teenager can instantly relate to. "Girlfriend" is one of those albums that I know every note by heart. It lives in my bones.
I'd seen Matthew Sweet a few times back in college, both solo (I remember skipping a test to see him play at Foellinger) and opening for R.E.M., and it used to be a great joke from Grierson that as I grew my hair long my junior year, I looked more and more like Matthew Sweet. ("Don't forget to play it LOUD!" was an inscription on the "Girlfriend" album, and that was always the first thing Grierson said when I'd see him back from college over Christmas. "Hey, Leitch ... DON'T FORGET TO PLAY IT LOUD!")
I bought "Altered Beast" and "100% Fun" and even "In Reverse," but eventually I lost touch with Matthew Sweet. Power pop meant a lot less to me at the turn of the new century, and my musical tastes turned darker, than then turned again toward the more wistful, almost folky. I busted out "Girlfriend" every once in a while, but just to relive what it was like back in the summer of 1992, driving around Lytle Pool, pining over unattainable girls and worrying what was gonna happen when the next school year was over.
But Matthew Sweet got his start in Athens -- he was briefly in a band with Michael Stipe -- and he always comes back here to play. So Wednesday I finally went to go see him. I spent most of the weeks beforehand brushing up on his catalog, but I figured it would be unnecessary once the show came around. Matthew Sweet has made a ton of music since "In Reverse" back in 1999 (10 albums worth), and surely he'd play all of those songs rather than rely on hits so old they can run for Congress. I was mostly just excited to get out of the house and get to a show. I need to do that more often.
Matthew Sweet these days does something he calls "chair shows." Basically, because of Sweet's current physical condition, he is unable to stand up during his shows. He joked during the show this week that it's sort of awkward to play a rock show while sitting down, because it puts you at eye level, or even below eye level, with your audience. "I never realized how much you people were looking at me," he joked.
It was not a big crowd. My friend Tim, who went to the show with me (and goes to a lot more shows than I do in general), remarked beforehand that "the couches are out" at the venue, a special seating area that limits capacity and is a tell-tale sign there haven't been a ton of presold tickets. This was as intimate as I'd ever seen a show by someone whose music I know so well (or at least four albums of music I know so well), and I figured he'd play the last 20 years worth of songs I didn't know, and I'd nod along and clap politely and just be happy I got to see Matthew Sweet so close up.
But that's of course not what happened. Sweet sat down and played every song you'd want him to. Every song was from those four albums, his most popular albums, the ones everyone wanted to hear, the ones he wrote more than 20 years ago. All the work he's done over the last 20 years, it was all erased: He was there, in front of this tiny crowd on a Wednesday night in northeast Georgia, playing the hits. He had to give the fans what they wanted, even if those songs must be so old and musty to him now, even if he has so many more things he'd rather show them. And he had to do so as a living monument to the passage of time, with all of us contrasting who he was then with who he is now, and with who we were then with who we are now. There weren't very many of us, and I'm not sure all of us were all there for the right reasons. But gave us what we wanted anyway.
Musicians always have had an advantage over writers in that everything they write can live forever, whereas everything we write vanishes or is overrun and forgotten within a matter of seconds. (They also have the advantage of being better looking, cooler and more sexually adventurous.) But I wonder if this is the downside to that. You are locked forever in your most popular moment. Whatever Matthew Sweet does the rest of his life, he'll always have people wondering when he's going to stop dicking around and just play "Girlfriend" already. I get to try out new things, test myself, get experimental, write a whole book without telling anyone just to see if I can, not really care about audience expectations because I do not ever have to face that audience in the flesh. People do not pay to come see me relive their salad years. I can just keep trying out whatever I want. Musicians can't do that. They better play the hits.
What must it be like to be a 54-year-old man who is required to go out and perform every night something he did for the first time when he was 25? How can he possibly care about those songs anymore? More to the point: How can he not feel stuck in that time, like nothing he did since then even matters? Like, how in the world can Keith Richards not want to shoot himself every time he has to trot out the "Satisfaction" lick for the 850,000th time? Sure, you get people coming out to watch you play music, and I, who has never had a lick of musical talent, am pretty envious of that. But are they coming out to see you? Or to poke you to be the person they remember you as? How do you live in the present when your job it is to constantly repeat the past?
It is worth noting that the show was fantastic. Sweet can't move around anymore, and the big solos were handled by his backing band, but the songs are still perfect: Just lovely, soaring pop rock songs. (My favorite remains "Someone to Pull the Trigger," and I actively squealed when he played it Wednesday.) I adored every minute of the show. Go queue up some Matthew Sweet in your Spotify this morning. The guy can write a song.
But I bet he's written dozens of great songs since I last paid attention to him. And I didn't care about those, and no one else did either. The thing about great musicians is that their songs really do bring you back to the moment when you first heard them. The best songs make seem specifically constructed to make you feel young forever. But you're not young forever. The songs are eternal, but we are not. You can keep growing and learning and evolving, but the music won't. The music, like your memory of yourself, is stuck where it was. This makes it wonderful: This is why music marks our lives in a way almost nothing else can.
But I can't fathom what it must be like to want to move on from it, and not be allowed to. And worse: To have no choice but to trot it, and the old you, back out. I'm envious of musicians. But not really. You gotta play the hits, and you gotta play them forever. Just don't forget to play them LOUD.
I believe in the next few weeks I will be switching this newsletter from Tinyletter to Substack. I am doing this because Tinyletter's CMS and archiving functions are both terrible and getting worse -- have you noticed all the weird font things going on lately? -- and because there are rumors that Tinyletter's going to get eaten up by MailChimp anyway. I hope there are no issues with the transition, but if for any reason in the next month or so you start not getting this newsletter every Saturday morning, please email me at email@example.com and I'll see what we can figure out.
And thank you as always for reading and subscribing to this thing. It means so much to me that it honestly scares me a little.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. You may disagree. It is your wont.
1. The Antonio Brown Story Was Amusing, Until It Suddenly, Dramatically Wasn't, NBC News. Spent a lot of time thinking about Chris Henry this week.
2. My Big Opening Essay for the Official Program for the Georgia-Notre Dame Game This Weekend, UGA Publications. This is probably as close as I get to being an academic!
3. Every Rambo Movie, Ranked, Vulture. Grierson only begrudgingly agreed to doing this one, so I wrote most of it, and I have to say ... I think it turned out pretty well!
4. The Coming Rise of the Politician-Athlete, New York. Fine, let's just let the jocks lead us then.
5. Review: "Ad Astra,"Paste Magazine. Not all dads!
6. Data Decade: The Best Individual Seasons of the Decade, MLB.com. So much Trout.
7. The History of Cardinals-Cubs Pennant Chases, MLB.com. There have not been many.
8. The Thirty: Players Having a Down Year Who Should Rebound, MLB.com. Matt Carpenter already WELL ON HIS WAY.
9. Debate Club: Best Brad Pitt Sci-Fi Movies, SYFY Wire. We did not include Benjamin Button.
10. If the Season Ended Today ...MLB.com. Just one more of these left.
Grierson & Leitch, Grierson returned to discuss Hustlers, The Goldfinch and 8 1/2.
Seeing Red, Bernie and I are starting to feel it.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we reviewed the Arkansas State game, and previewed this crazy Notre Dame game.
THE WILL LEITCH SHOW
I'm generally supportive of politicians, as humans, considering how much they put themselves and their families through just because they honestly (usually) believe they can make the world a better place. There's a certain mad hopefulness to that. But there is something unifying about a politician that everyone hates. We'll miss you, de Blasio.
Also, welcome to the rankings Mark Sanford. Please make some dents.
1. Elizabeth Warren
2. Beto O'Rourke
3. Kamala Harris
4. Cory Booker
5. Pete Buttigieg
6. Joe Biden
7. Amy Klobuchar
8. Bernie Sanders
9. Steve Bullock
10. Michael Bennet
11. Julian Castro
12. Tim Ryan
13. Andrew Yang
14. Tulsi Gabbard
15. Mark Sanford
16. William Weld
17. Marianne Williamson
18. Tom Steyer
19. John Delaney
20. Joe Walsh
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
"Everybody Hides," Wilco. This video for their second single off the upcoming album is rather delightful. (I like this song more than the first one too.)
This was two years ago.
Ready to get back out there today. Go Dawgs. (And go Illini. And of course go Cards.)
Have a great weekend, all.