Life-changing moments are often recognized only after the fact. The closest I ever came to a real life-changer was back in the winter of ‘72, when I realized in my heart that life could be summarized by Sisyphus as Camus described him in his famous essay. I whipped quickly from laughter to tears and back again, as I made a connection to that man pushing that rock for eternity. I try not to dismiss these kinds of moments in others (usually a religious awakening) because I had the same thing happen to me.
I think by the end of our first Bruce Springsteen concert in 1975 that we knew something had changed. It’s more obvious in retrospect, after 40+ years of concerts and albums and road trips, but there was something special enough about that first show that we came back for more. And more and more.
I did not know, on April 8, 1997, that Dig Me Out, the new album by Sleater-Kinney, would affect me in a similar fashion. Until that point I’d been aware of the band without giving myself over to them. Their previous album, Call the Doctor, had some impressive songs, with my favorite being “Good Things”, but I didn’t love it from start to finish. I liked the band enough to pick up Dig Me Out, though, albeit not on its release date ... I wasn’t hooked yet. I found that album to be more consistent than Call the Doctor, and there were so many great songs I could barely pick a favorite (if forced to decide, I’d go with “One More Hour”).
I saw them for the first time in August of ‘98, when they were still touring behind Dig Me Out. It might have been that night when I understood something special was going on. It wasn’t that they were an irresistible live force, at least not yet ... Corin let her voice make the statements, and what a voice it is, but she was fairly calm onstage. Carrie already had her rock star moves ... she was far and away the most charismatic. More important, they were loud in the classic punk manner, and the sound system was never sufficient, so it took years before I felt I could really appreciate their concerts.
But there was Janet Fucking Weiss. I’ve seen a few great drummers in my day ... Keith Moon was always my favorite, which is why I stopped thinking of the band as “The Who” after he died. Janet Weiss was knocking on the door of the great drummers. Often, the mix at S-K shows was bad enough that the drums were the easiest thing to hear, so I knew right away how great she was. And she had, and has, great drummer hair.
Since that night, I’ve never been able to hear their music without noticing how great she is. It was another step beyond fandom to something else.
They played a song or two from their upcoming album, The Hot Rock, but the Dig Me Out songs (six of them) made the biggest impression.
Something had happened between Sleater-Kinney and me. I saw them twice in 1999, twice in 2000, three times in 2002, and once a year between 2003 and 2006 (it helped that this Portland band played quite often in the Bay Area). By the time of their hiatus, I’d seen them a dozen times, and they fit the cliché of the artist who keeps getting better. They now had a confidence on stage (Carrie’s memoir showed how much that wasn’t true, but I couldn’t tell). Their unique sound combined three idiosyncratic talents, all remarkable, into a whole that was impossibly better than the parts. Corin’s astonishing vocals ... Carrie’s singular guitar work ... and Janet, the most traditional sounding of the group, she sounded like a Rock Drummer, except she was perhaps the greatest living Rock Drummer.
We know now how necessary their hiatus was. With the passing years, my hopes that they would return grew weaker. And, as I have said many times, I pined miserably because I knew at my age, I was unlikely to ever find another artist that would mean so much to me.
Which is another way of saying that they had changed my life. Not just because I missed them, but also because I thought they were irreplaceable. And I knew this in 2006, and in the following “hiatus” years, in a way I could never have imagined in 1997 when Dig Me Out was released.
So OK, it’s just a rock and roll band, and “life-changing” is a pretty big claim. Sisyphus changed my life. In music, Bruce Springsteen did the same. But Sleater-Kinney, great artists that they were and are, looked at the world with a pitiless eye, but also suggested a life worth living. It was rewarding to follow them. Life-changing? Maybe that goes too far. But they were a difference maker.
That the hiatus finally ended, that their new album was as good as what came before, that their concerts are better than what came before (I’ve seen them three times since the return) ... this is more miraculous than you might think. The world is full of artists who came back only to remind us of how good they used to be. Sleater-Kinney came back, and they were as good as they used to be.
And for me, it all started 20 years ago today, when Dig Me Out was released.
Here they are at 924 Gilman, a month-and-a-half after the album was released:
Here they are, post-hiatus:
And the best song from Dig Me Out: