20 Miserable Years

Saturday, August 4, 2012 - 12:05:23 am
(Posted Under: Tempe Music Scene Tempe Music Scene, Music Music)
There's nothing like your favorite album of all time turning 20 years old to slap you in the face with a harsh realization: you're fucking old. Maybe that's something you manage to avoid if your favorite record is a Beatles album that was released decades before you were born. But when it's one that came out when you were an angsty teenager, well that sort of milestone is just plain scary.

For me, that record is New Miserable Experience, which was released 20 years ago today. I remember it like it was literally just yesterday. That just makes it more scary. Where have those 20 years gone? I'm not quite sure.

Of course, what I remember like it was yesterday isn't the day it was released as much as the night I became aware of it. Thanks to the album initially lingering in obscurity, it was about a year and a half later that I became savvy to it. December 1993. It was then another 7 months before I was able to have a local record store order me a copy, as it took that long for it to hit the shores on which I resided. Yep, I had it on "order" for probably a little under a month before it hit the store shelves. I was probably one of the first people in Australia to own a copy of the album. I was ahead of the game, on the cutting edge. In July 1994 - uh, 23 months after it's original release in the US. [wink] So it's actually been a key part of my music collection for closer to 18 years. But does that make me feel any less old, or it feeling like yesterday any less scary? No, not really.

A record can change your life

We all have that album that changed our life. Well, the lucky ones among us do.

"If you don't expect too much from me, you might not be let down" / "All I really want is to be with you, feeling like I matter too"
That December night, I discovered the song that said everything I ever wanted to say. The guy that wrote it had been booted from the band, which pissed me off to no end. As that song ended, the band's second single started playing immediately, also penned by the guitarist. Was it pure coincidence that both songs were back to back on top 40 radio that week? Or was that fate's hand, just making sure my life would be altered that night?

Whispers at the bus stop / I've heard about nights out in the school yard / I found out about you".
The imagery delivered in these three minute pop songs were stunning. This wasn't abstract stoner rock. The words Hopkins wrote perfectly painted a complete picture. The lyrical style was clear and deliberate. And brutally honest. The songs made you feel like you were there.

Prior to 1993 I'd had a handful of "favorite" bands and records. While I stand by some of them to this day, it was a combination of the music and/or image of the band that had caught my attention. Lyrics weren't lost on me, but it wasn't often the thing that initially drew me in. The majority of those earlier records I considered as favorites, were lyrically hardly what you'd consider high caliber Rimbaud poetry. With New Miserable Experience, I connected to the lyrical content immediately. For probably the first time, the lyrics resonated before the music did.

I still remember the day picked up the album on cassette. I had the wrapping ripped off and the liners out before I'd even arrived home, scanning for song writing credits. After 7 months of playing the two singles (recorded from radio) over and over, I still knew very little about the band, but I knew I wanted the majority of the album to be written by Hopkins. 6 out of 12. Not bad. I doubt I could get home fast enough to hear all these other tracks. By the time I had made it home, I'd probably already memorized who'd penned which songs. Right from that first listen, it was Hopkins songs that resonated the most with me. And it wasn't through preconceived notions. These songs were written to draw me in. At age 15, if anything is going to make you feel like someone else gets it, it's lines like "She had nothing left to say / So she said she loved me / I stood there grateful for the lie".

My view on, and place within the world is a little different than it was back then. As you might hope. Though, every word Doug Hopkins wrote still rings to true. The moment that "drink enough of anything, to make this world look new again" isn't relevant to some situation, you've stumbled into some bizarre mythical charmed life. That is the brilliance of Hopkins' writing, and what makes it such an incredible album. It made the cold, cynical world bearable when you were 15, and still does 20 years later.

There will never be another New Miserable Experience. That fact was etched out when Hopkins was canned, prior to the album being released. Then set in stone by Hopkins himself, the night he checked out. Which was right as I was discovering the band and the record. The anger I had over that was palpable. It's cruel to find a band that makes you feel a place in the world, only to have it ripped from you almost immediately. Your cold calculated move against the world, that you might have planned all along. All these years later, I have more peace with all of that. But I'd be lying if I said those feelings of anger and frustration are ever too distant, ready to surface at the opportune moment. 20 fucking miserable years.

What was lost in terms of ever hearing new music from the incarnation of the band that delivered this record, was found in music I discovered because of it. In the past 20 years, there has been a plethora. The addition of that album to my collection has seen it morph radically. For the most part, with artists that were in some way connected to the scene that record was born out of. It was never really a conscious thing. It just kind of happened. I heard one band that used to play with the Gin Blossoms. Someone sent me a tape of another band Hopkins had been in. I checked out MP3's of some other band coming up through that scene. Progressively, albums in my collection had to make way for bands that more or less came out of the Tempe area. I can't really put my finger on when it went from "a few bands" to a keen interest in the scene. It certainly wasn't overnight, and I don't think it was a big epiphany moment. But at some point it happened. I've discovered countless amazing bands because of that record. Some influenced the Gin Blossoms, some contemporaries, some were influenced by them. Others have very little ties to that "scene" and I've stumbled across them through six degrees of separation.

My collection has also grown, making room for bands that I grew up with, liked, but never really paid that much attention to when I was the kid. The likes of The Cure, The Church and The Replacements (to name a few) have become poignant in my collection thanks to that record. All of that I'm pretty grateful for. It hasn't all been miserable.

20 years on, the "record that changed my life" adage can throw me, in times where I look around at my life while saying it. There are numerous big life decisions and paths taken, which wouldn't have been the case if it weren't for that record. Christ, I recently brought a house a stones throw away from where half of that band grew up. Not that all of the specifics are deliberate. Because they're not, and some things just work out a certain way. It's not all "I moved to Minneapolis because of The 'Mats". Like the "stones throw" thing - that just happened that way. But when you pass McClintock High School on the way home, especially when you grew up on a different continent in an entirely different hemisphere, just how literal that adage is is going to hit you now and then. After all, if it weren't for this record, I'd probably have never even heard of "Tempe, Arizona".

Several elements make this such a quintessential album for me. First and foremost is Hopkins song writing and guitar style work. That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Another is Robin's vocals. Now, he's essentially been a "could sing the phone book" singer his whole career. Well, after Dusted anyway. [wink] But with that said, he's never sounded as good as he did on New Miserable Experience. His performances during the sessions, both on material that did and didn't make it onto the record is nothing short of amazing.

Additionally, he also penned one of the best songs on the record. Forget the Grammy Nominations; never mind the "number one hit"; Until I Fall Away is the best song Robin's ever written. It's never been the song he's been most known for, which is something I'll never understand.

The other key element that makes New Miserable Experience incredible is John Hampton. The record has probably never made any traditional "best guitar album" lists, and probably never will. However, for me it is absolutely one one of the best guitar albums made. The beauty in the subtleties, both through Hopkins' arrangements (as evident on Dusted, pre Hampton) and in John's production. This is something I noticed early on. A casual listen reveals the typical three guitar arrangements. But on a closer listen, the number of guitars in the arrangements is truly amazing. It may have been the songs that initially grabbed me, but it was the subtleties that continued to keep this album fresh over the surely obscene number times I've listened to it. Throughout the years, there has always been a note that I've never heard before, a deep in the mix guitar that's revealed itself. That's the sort of sonic texturing shit I live for. New Miserable Experience continues to deliver.

In more recent years, two other notable Hampton productions have made their way into my collection: Please To Meet Me (The Replacements) and Based On Happy Times (Tommy Keene). Both share that sonic quality and subtle layering that I've always known of New Miserable Experience, which seems to be Hampton's brilliance. On both accounts, after listening to those records for a while I've had that "this sounds like..." moment, done some Googling and confirmed my thought that indeed Hampton was somehow involved.

There are countless examples of where the production and the record proves to be ear candy, especially for a guitarist. One of the more obvious examples is Hold Me Down. Grab a pair of headphones and crank the volume. That production and arrangement, it's just amazing. The split channels / guitars, haphazardly dueling power chords against each other, building a wall of tension and then coming together in unison at the end of the phrase blows my mind just as much as any ridiculous finger tapping solo Eddie Van Halen has laid down. That's rock n' roll.

A lot has changed in the past 20 years, but this record has remained constant throughout it. And I'm sure it will for the next 20.

While there are numerous albums I cannot imagine living without, if you're ever going to banish me to a desert island, be sure there is a copy of New Miserable Experience sitting under a palm tree. Oh, and be kind: original cover artwork version, please.


Comments Icon
Dave Vitagliano says on
Monday, September 3, 2012 - 07:37:39 am

After meeting you last night I wanted to reread this. Brilliant Mark. Intelligently written and heart felt. Wonder if a book about the whole Tempe scene and history would find an audience or publisher? Enjoyed talking last night. Hope to do that again in a bit quieter circumstances.

Post Comment

All fields are required. Email addresses will not be published, but are required for anti-spam purposas.

Switch Styles

About Style Switching.

!Weblog Index

Jul August 2012 Sep
1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30


RSS FeedRSS Feed