A week of songs: day six

OK, so thanks to the Facebook chain post doing the rounds, I’m doing that song-a-day-for-a-week thing where I post a song I like and write a bit about it. You should do it too, eh? (Seriously, if you like the post, go write your own, and tell me in the comments, as I’d like to read your picks.)

This is day six. Again, there’s been some gaps between the posts due to, well, life, but today is a day, and it’s the sixth that I’ve written about a song, so deal with it, continuity sticklers. The song I’ve chosen today is You Am I‘s ‘Purple Sneakers’.

It’s important to note that this band was the one which probably meant the most to me as I went through university. I liked a bunch of music, but these guys were the first to really make me look at local music as something good in its own right, not just a pale shadow of overseas artists’ work. I discovered them as I was working in Year 12 holidays, from a now-defunct store in Pitt St Mall, where I hogged a listening post for the duration of Sound As Ever. It was kind of Seattle-sounding, but had more hooks – as the almost inescapable presence of songs such as ‘Berlin Chair’, ‘Adam’s Ribs’ or ‘Jaimme’s Got A Gal’ would prove that year. But more than that, this was an album by a bunch of dudes who sounded local.

(The first guitar I bought myself, a 1980s Yamaha SA2200 semi-acoustic, was bought because I thought Tim’s 335 on the cover of Sound As Ever (and seen in this filmclip, before he left it in a taxi and lost it) was badass. And so, I spent what to me then was a lot of mailroom-shift money – $700 – on a cherry-red monster from the wall of the Happy Hocker in Kings Cross. And I went home and played You Am I songs on the bastard, and discovered exactly how heavy a guitar could be. To this day, I covet one of the Piers Crocker guitars he plays, though to own one would probably be a bit too obvious a fanboy badge, even for me.)

I went to my first big local gig – Midnight Oil at the Entertainment Center for the Earth And Sun And Moon didn’t count – to see the band. May 25th, 1994 at the Phoenician Club, now sadly defunct. I was a couple of months into uni, still lived at home with my parents, and it was the first time I’d seen any of the bands on the bill. Drop City, The Verys and Crow were all launching albums, I think, and because I wasn’t drinking I was pretty much welded to the barrier. It was a long night of rock and ended with a You Am I cover of Mose Allison’s ‘Young Man Blues’ (as later filmed here) as per The Who, which clued me in to where Tim’s windmilling, jumping, stage persona came from. The drumkit was demolished to signify there’d be no more music, and I remember walking out into the night, ears ringing, hoping my car hadn’t been broken into while I was inside.

(It turns out even scumbags didn’t want to knock over a 1979 Mazda 323 rustbucket. What a surprise.)

Anyway, on to the song I’ve chosen. It’s the sixth off Hi Fi Way, the band’s second album, which gave them a shitload more coverage. There were plenty of rock moments, but the broadened instrumental palette and songwriting stretches were what made me love it. I didn’t know until recently that the album was mostly written in the studio. At the time it didn’t seem like it – it seemed this flowing, expansive thing where the first album was much more focused on anger and loss. This one was brighter, though no less sad. Narratives seemed to just fall together, and the songs seemed simple enough that I could maybe do that, though hard enough that I’m still chasing them, years later.

For an arts student kid, trying to figure out where the fuck he belonged, this album was great. There were tunes on here talking about a world I’d come to recognise, with life experience, but ‘Purple Sneakers’ was written for me, even if some of the lyrics are still a bit of a mystery to me.

From the beginning – that guitar strumming, the effect-laden lead almost a psychedelic busking number – I was in. Low key, but then the first line:

Had a scratch only you could itch/underneath the Glebe Point Bridge

and we’re somewhere I know. This isn’t in the ether – it’s just around the corner, over there. And through the rest of the verses unspools a feeling, rather than a story. A feeling of being together alone, of needing something outside yourself to make yourself worthwhile, and always, always the specter of twinned love and loss.

The verses meander a little, but by God, then we hit the chorus, which never fails to raise the hairs on my arms. Particularly the terrible identification I felt – and sometimes, still feel – in the lyrics

For every trouble you found
There’s a drink to lose it and drown
But do you need somebody, to feel somebody?

It’s taken me decades to realise the person I need is me. That it’s OK to be a Sydney-livin’ loser who feels alone sometimes. That’s part of things. And we do all these things to try and feel ok with that.

I suppose part of me is sad when I hear this song. I think of the sad kid I was and how I was so desperate for attention. I think of the times I spent my life worried about what other people thought. There’s happiness, sure – You Am I’s first couple of albums were key to my university life, and I played them to death. I saw many, many gigs and introduced friends to the band, dragging them along to shows and dancing (me! dancing!) like a fool because here was stuff I knew so completely that it felt like part of me. But there is, like the melancholy in Tim’s lyrics, always that little twinge in the heart when I hear these albums now. And this song in particular, because I can see myself, alone in my car, parked and looking at the water, wondering what or who would scratch that itch of longing I had.

(I’m aware that I’m fucking up my description of how this band is important to me, because sometimes we are unable to articulate why things that might seem silly to others mean the world to us. Read this article by my friend A.H. Cayley for a clearer, younger view on what they’ve got. Because that sense frailty and strength, that eye for characterisation are all better described by her than I could. You won’t regret it.)

In some ways, following a band like You Am I is like being a football tragic. I was raised a Parramatta fan, and while there’s glory days, there’s a lot of not quite to contend with. (I fully recognise that this is the result of a couple of these albums being soundtracks to momentous times in my life, while the others weren’t, so it’s likely it’s my fault, not theirs.) But I remember being at the Falls Festival in Victoria, where the band were set to play as a make-good for an poor showing a while earlier. I’d not seen them play for a long time, because I’d seen a couple of duff shows and hadn’t wanted to spoil my good memories. But my then-partner was able to wrangle for me to stand side of stage and watch the band play a hefty slab of their rough-and-ready Convicts album. And it was amazing. I was stupidly, weepingly happy to see a band I loved do the stuff they loved. It was everything I’d hoped it would be, and has set the template for every show of theirs I’ve seen since.

(You can see me in this clip, briefly.)

Before they walked onstage at Falls, 2006, Tim – who I’ve never really met, though there’s been years of nodding here and there – waved to me on his way to the stairs and shouted “Join a rock band! Ruin your life!”

I may yet, Tim. I may yet.

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