"I want to check in a few albums down the road when it will be clearer whether The Center Won’t Hold began a new, positive, direction for the band or marked a dead end. It’s an album where 'I’m not sure I wanna go on at all' co-exists with 'Tired of bein’ told that this should be the end'."
Sleater-Kinney, "No Cities to Love". From one of the two concerts I attended in 2015. Both were Sleater-Kinney concerts. I can't overstate how much it meant to me when they returned from their "hiatus". I could have made this list the ten songs from No Cities to Love and it would accurately reflect what I listened to that year.
Vince Staples, "Norf Norf". OK, this is an actual music video.
Hey, guess what? I'm not done with Sleater-Kinney. Here's the official video for "No Cities to Love". You can watch it twice if you want, just to make sure you identify all the guest stars (which include Captain Marvel and someone who went to high school with my daughter):
Sleater-Kinney, "Sympathy". Corin Tucker's finest moment, and another ultimate 9/11 song.
Norah Jones, "Come Away with Me". The album earned Jones her first Grammy, at the age of 23. Also her second, third, fourth, and fifth Grammy. It was her debut album.
Pink, "Don't Let Me Get Me". I obsess over this video. I used it in the classroom. I've written about both the song and the video before. After seeing her live for the first time, in 2002, I wrote:
The show had many highlights ... the oddest one for me came with the final song of the night, "Don't Let Me Get Me." This was the anthem all the girls had been waiting for, and seeing and hearing them sing along to this complex song was bizarre. What does it mean when a bunch of kids happily shout out "I wanna be somebody else"? The closest thing I can think of is when the audience would sing along with Johnny Rotten's "No Future!" ... as if in the act of proclaiming our nihilism, we were expressing our love of life. Except I don't ever remember wanting to be Johnny Rotten, while I think a lot of people in that audience would have been happy if the "somebody else" they got to be was in fact the woman who introduced those words to us in the first place: Pink.
I didn't realize this would become a mini-theme, but once again, I pick an album that meant the most to me personally over albums that I might think of as "better". I've written way too much about this band ... not sure what I could add at the moment. Suffice to say that they are my favorite band since this album came out in 1997, and were already approaching that status by then. I've mentioned seeing many of the acts on this list multiple times ... since I first saw this group, I've seen them 15 times, only one less time than I've seen Bruce Springsteen during that period (and I've seen 7 or 8 shows featuring members of the band in "side projects"). The Woods could easily be on this list. That's an album remarkable for being arguably their best, ten years after their first, seven albums in. But Dig Me Out won my heart. And there has never been a better breakup song than "One More Hour".
Some of the women whose work informs and inspires me today:
Maureen Ryan, TV Critic, Variety. Sample piece: "‘Sweet/Vicious’ Canceled by MTV but Should Live on Elsewhere (Opinion)". "One of the greatest joys of this job is coming across something around the margins that does something cool, unique, or entertaining. When a show you’ve never heard of does all of those things, it’s like getting a jolt of joy straight to thenervous system."
I think I was too scared to be open with the fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be. How could I help if I was just like them? I was afraid I might not be able to lessen their pain or live up to their ideals; I would be revealed as a fraud, unworthy and insubstantial. The disconnect between who I was on- and offstage would be so pronounced as to be jarring. Me, so small, so unqualified.
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: