“Where do you go when you know you’re not welcome?”
HOW THE UNITED Way of Tucson Arizona thought I was qualified to solicit money still remains a mystery. I was 30 pounds overweight, perpetually unclean and nauseous before public speaking. My necktie was greasy from months of loosening and tightening—I couldn’t even spell Shelby Knot back then.
I always wore the same khaki pants and blue shirt to beg donors for cash. I didn’t have the budget or patience to wash them regularly, so I often found myself in corporate bathrooms before speeches, spot cleaning spilled milk or pizza sauce.
I drove a powder blue ’88 Chevy Celebrity with neither a car stereo nor power steering. It handled like the Mayflower, and I remember wildly cranking the wheel into the Saguaro Power Plant parking lot, way north of the city, out among the prairie dogs and cactus. No doubt, those on smoke break noticed me that burning summer day. Nobody could have missed the sound of my favorite record blasting from inside. An abused, battery-powered boombox rode shotgun with Coachwhips’ second album, “Get Yr Body Next to Mine,” at MAX volume.
Music for maniacs, some would call it.
Looking back, that music seems like the only thing worthy of the confusion and chaos of 2003.
“[Indecipherable] Like food it feeds, yeah.
“All about the American [Indecipherable]”
A sampling of 2003’s headlines include:
- Department of Homeland Security opens.
- Iraq War begins with its Shock and Awe campaign.
- The Term “Freedom Fries” is first used in the Congressional Cafeteria in Washington.
- Lance Armstrong wins a 5th tour de France.
- The last old-style Volkswagen Beetle rolls off an assembly line in Mexico.
- George W. Bush stands atop the USS Abraham Lincoln and announces that combat in Iraq will be over soon.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger is elected governor of California.
“Well, you look like you’re oh-so-lonesome
“UFO, Please Take Her Home”
The Coachwhips were singer/guitarist John Dwyer’s thesis statement about how rock music should feel. Because getting a feel for the music was all you could do. The Coachwhips were impossible to enjoy in any traditional sense, like lyricism or craftsmanship or harmony.
Music for maniacs.
Get Yer Body Next Ta Mine was comprised of 14 cuts so ugly the four-track recorder probably needed a coat of Lysol. Vocals were straight out of a drive-thru window. It was a mess of untuned guitar and keys. Knuckle-dragging garage bands like the Troggs, the Sonics and the Gories may have cleared some of the pathway, but they didn’t come close to Coachwhips’ WTF? quality. Nobody had ever had that. Or their knack for the disgustingly buried melody. And no band came near their sense of confusion.
Dwyer is now known as the prolific leader of the fairly popular, Oh Sees. But he was completely off the cultural radar in 2003. There were never interviews in magazines, the band proudly didn’t have a website, and the Coachwhips were rumored to be unbelievably wild in concert, though you never really knew when they’d show up in your town and destroy your record store (See below at 1:00 mark).
Despite all these handicaps, or perhaps, because of those handicaps, The Coachwhips were the perfect sound for that imperfect year: 2003. More perfect than Outkast. More perfect than Radiohead, even.
All this came streaming back when I learned the Coachwhips are reuniting for South By Southwest.
“You say you’re down, baby, yes I’m down.
“I can’t help it that I do the things that I do.”
I stood in the power plant’s break room—fluorescent lights chirping above, hands shaking, pointing to a brochure about the exciting things the United Way was doing to help the community—so completely lost. I was robotic and passionless when it came to telling this crowd about my passion for helping others. I could barely help myself in 2003.
My overweight belly was resting atop $80,000 of private college debt. I shared a one-bedroom apartment furnished with only an air mattress and a camping chair. Somehow, this wreck of a man earning a hair over minimum wage was supposed to charm obscene amounts of money from CEOs around the city.
Audiences rarely asked questions after I sighed into home plate. If they did, it was usually to inquire how much money we were embezzling. I invented stories about pending meetings to avoid hanging around longer than necessary. I shook a few hands and tried not to make eye contact.
Saguaro Power Plant was another in a long string of duds I handed the United Way that spoiled year.
I was a miserable man and a worse employee. Thankfully, the Coachwhips were waiting in the triple-digit heat of the Chevy Celebrity. Some days that skronk was the only thing that made me remember life could be great.
“I couldn’t find
“I couldn’t find
“I couldn’t find love”
It feels naive now, but in 2003 we assumed it was all a blip on the radar. This tanking economy, this invisible job market, this frightening lack of political control. Economists and parents and politicians rubbed the shoulders of new grads like me and said it would all be over soon. We’ll be going back to normal any time now.
I was a senior in college when the Twin Towers fell. And while, yes, I know every generation feels lost after exiting higher education’s nest for the world of Dockers and whiteboards, it’s safe to say this one got sucker punched a little harder.
We were on the front line of today’s normal – an economic belt tightening that turned into a whalebone corset that keeps squeezing 11 years later. But back then, in 2003, there was no rage, there was no Occupy Anything. Young people, like me, scraped for some job far below their expectations and, instead of feeling lucky to be earning anything at all, hated themselves for it.
Our problems were simple and the emotions complicated. It was a time that created an album equally simple and emotionally complex.
Music for maniacs.
“I killed her”
2003 felt like a lot more important moment in rock history than it, in fact, was.
There was the now-forgettable Brooklyn dance punk revolution of the Rapture, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Liars and dozens of also-rans. Fans hiding from fear on the dance floor.
On the other side of the spectrum, Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief was the only album brave enough to point fingers. Only when those fingers extended all the way from Oxford, England, it was hard to get behind their critique.
Finally, Outkast overpowered the listening public with the double dynamite of Speakerboxxx/Love Below. Strapping on headphones with “Hey Ya” seemed to melt away the bad vibes of the Bush White House. That didn’t make it go away though.
Maybe they tried, but these albums failed to reflect their era. As I look back, there was only one record grotesque and awful-smelling and weird enough to mimeograph the mess in our hearts, circa 2003.
Make no mistake, people who bought the Get Yer Body Next Ta Mine were buying a party record. And they got one. Albeit a party record that acted as a document of indecipherable times. Dirty politics. Hopeless lifestyle choices. Disappointment. Confusion. Today, the album’s messy nature seems to represent my total inability to express my frustration that year.
I suspect I am not alone.
But let’s not forget, it wasn’t always awful.
“Why do you go
“Where you know you’re mistreated?”
Joy is the part I nearly forgot. It’s easy to look back and comment on what a rotten time the world was. It’s easy to wax nostalgic on how a skuzzy rock album reflected that despair. But what 2003 had and what Get Yer Body Next Ta Mine also had is joy. These days, I look back at Tucson fondly. I tend to forget there ever was a President George W. Bush or a United Way or a city weirdly obsessed with bioterrorism.
After the Saguaro Power Plant, I returned to the United Way office and pretended to work the rest of the day. That afternoon, one of the administrative assistants told me about a bioterrorism preparation drill happening downtown. Apparently, volunteers were asked to lie in the scorching desert sun and play dead as if a dirty bomb had devoured the population. It was meant to test the city’s emergency response team.
Even at that orange-alert point in American history, this seemed perversely amusing. We joked about going and playing dead and how much better that would be than actually sitting at work in pizza-stained pants. Still I didn’t leave my desk for fear of losing a job that I hated. To this day I can’t imagine why.
That was the dose of happiness I needed to get through the day. And after work I went home and joked with my roommate and spent time with my girlfriend, who eventually became my wife. Things were nasty, but really not so nasty. Life was a Coachwhips record.
Listen to Get Yer Body Next Ta Mine and, despite the distortion and breakneck pace, you won’t find much angst. It’s a celebratory sound, buried under chaos. Proof that people can find happiness in the roughest of times.
And, that’s what makes any great album significant, an ability to play shell games with emotion. The confusion, the chaos, and also the straight up joy. A great record reflects your emotions differently each time you listen. Radiohead had the confusion without the happiness, OutKast had the good vibes without the edgy chaos. No record owned 2003’s DNA the way a shredded, dented, imperfect album like Get Yer Body Next Ta Mine did.
Mute any footage of the Iraq War, or footage of George Bush speaking, or footage of a sad, overweight United Way employee giving a speech. Play the Coachwhips’ magnum opus over top that footage and they fit together nicely.
It was music for maniacs, but everything was a little manic in 2003.