"What came first - the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?" High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
I have a pet theory that needs walking, concerning the differing ways in which men and women listen to music. It goes something like this: women enjoy music, but men invest in it emotionally. Female music lovers have an admirable capacity for taking pleasure in a beautiful record and then moving on with their lives, in a way that men - somehow believing themselves to be more participant than consumer - simply cannot. Put another way, women have favourite albums, but only men can have 'formative' ones.
Tonight, the Lemonheads will play their best-loved and most successful album It's A Shame About Ray, front to back in the order it was recorded, to yet another sell-out crowd of 30-something males at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire. I won't be among them myself, but only because I've seen the Ray show on three continents already, and I'm holding out for a royal flush when Asia and Africa get added to the list. The minute the Lemonheads announce a show in Mogadishu, I'm booking a flight.
Last year, It's A Shame About Ray turned 18 years old. The soundtrack to my begrudging accession into adulthood - probably the only record I can convincingly attach that slippery word 'formative' to - reached the same age I was when I fell in love with it in 1992. The idea that the album I came of age to had somehow come of age itself was, I don't mind admitting, more than a little discombobulating. I did what any normal person would do under the circumstances and flew to Sydney to see it performed in the city which gave birth to it. I like to think of it as a kind of premature midlife crisis.
Oh shush, these anniversaries are important to people like me. Some men splash out on fast cars and ill-advised leather jackets as they approach 40. But those of us whose lives revolve at something closer to 33rpm, marked out less by birthdays or car purchases than by album release dates and NME covers, the type of people - let's face it - who have 'formative' albums not favourite ones, navigate according to quite other almanacs. (And besides, I have a wardrobe full of ill-advised leather jackets already.) First girlfriend: Nothing's Shocking by Jane's Addiction. First break-up: Grace by Jeff Buckley. First year at university: It's A Shame About Ray by the Lemonheads.
Socially, my first year at college felt like swimming - actually drowning - in a reluctant tincture of two competing urges: a loud proclamation on the one hand of just how unendurably unique and misunderstood I was, accompanied on the other by a clumsier but no less industrious groping around for a group of souls just like me to fall in with. One of the things people don't seem to understand is just how hard it is finding people as misunderstood as you. It's incredibly tiring. Thank God for pop records.
So Ray came along at the perfect time. Not so much a collection of songs as scenes snatched from a mini-verse you hung out in, Ray's world almost precisely resembled the new one I was fumbling into. It was peopled by likeable college dropouts who did all the same stuff my friends and I did (or wanted to), but with a reckless disregard for tomorrow's 9am philosophy lecture which we didn't possess. They fell in and out of love with each other, cooked badly as a metaphor for their disordered lives, took drugs, stayed up all night and endlessly repeated the same stories. Ray was a perfect slacker soap opera with its own cast of approximately sketched-out characters - Alison and Fiona and Angela and Frank - whose kitchens, couches and front porches formed a convincingly doped-out stage set under the ceiling fans and butterscotch street lamps of some nameless but familiar city. Ray's perfect pop songs were almost wastefully short, some under two minutes in length, the whole album clocking in at less than half an hour, like an Electric Kool-Aid episode of Friends in which the characters are cooler, more confused and take drugs instead of drinking coffee.
Intoxicated and intoxicating, Ray's blink-and-you'll-miss-it impenetrability kept me coming back again and again from the moment I first heard it. And as its quirky little snapshots weren't over-exposed in the way Teen Spirit or Lithium were on Nineties MTV, Ray surprises me even now in a way that Nevermind can't. Arriving at a watershed moment in my life and then just sort of hanging around, Ray is a flatmate who crashed on my couch for a week and then never left.
Opening track Rockin' Stroll is a romper-suited, child's-eye view of this world from a pram. Album centrepiece My Drug Buddy is a Hammond-soaked amble by two junkie friends through Sydney's Newtown district until daylight, startled by cars as they fly up King Street. Alison's Starting to Happen is about noticing a girl 'in that way' for the first time, while Kitchen is the opening scene of an illicit affair between friends. Album closer Frank Mills, a goofy acoustic cover of the song from the musical Hair, is a touching appeal for help finding a lost friend. The eponymous Ray receives only a cameo role on the title track, enigmatic like Virginia Woolf in an Edward Albee play.
But Ray is no concept album, not like Tommy or The Wall. Shades maybe of The Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society in its character sketches and story-telling, albeit in an urban setting. Sonically coherent and melodically accessible in a way the Lemonheads never had been previously, its 12 little songs are lyrically opaque, connected only as you might connect overheard conversations walking through a city at night. There's no narrative arc, no recurring plotline, no reprise and no resolution; Ray is a chance and cobbled storyboard, familiar but removed like an armful of Polaroids fanned out on a friend-of-a-friend's living room floor. It has been a firm and faithful companion over the years.
So here I am, a standing refutation of the old cliché that men never remember their anniversaries. Happy anniversary Ray - I love you like a brother.
Chris' book Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America can be purchased from his Amazon page.