The river’s muddy guts had backed up, exploded
Spillin’ out the facts, fast and a lot
Spillin’ out the facts of the city’s dirty secrets
Like a city surfacing from out of the brack
“It’s Only Money Tyrone,” Marah
I saw my favorite still-together (though sometimes just barely) band last weekend at the 8×10. They played to about twenty still-living (though sometimes just barely) people. It was a Sunday night. As if that were an excuse.
Marah is Nick Hornby’s favorite band, too (About A Boy, High Fidelity); you can trust him. Trust Sarah Vowell and Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle. But most of all trust me. You missed something serious.1
Favorite has different manifestations these days. As a kid, I pinned pictures of my favorites to the bedroom wall. If the poster was nice, I caught the corners with the flat part of the tack, rather than poke a hole in the paper, a trick my decorator mother taught me. I clipped and collected articles about the bands from Creem and Circus and Trouser Press and any other magazine that featured them. I knew all the members’ names and what they looked like and all the lyrics to all the songs and owned all the records, including the Japanese bootlegs and the colored vinyls, which I bought at Howie’s Music Machine in Pikesville, where, it seemed, older hipsters spent the entire day in their leather jackets, leaning on the racks, listening to music no one else had ever heard of, where I spent the day when I became an older hipster, leaning, listening. If Ivan Kral had walked down any street, I’d have recognized him. No way could Lenny Kaye or Earl Slick or Julian Cope escape me.
When you got home from the record store, you could run your fingernail down the middle of your album jacket, which was wrapped in thin cellophane, and in seconds you were transported to a place you stayed for hours. If you were lucky, inside would be something more than just a white sleeve with a circular cutout that made the record label visible. Lyrics were especially precious, but posters were adored. And there was another secret about a record: in that end space of smooth, unrecorded vinyl, you could sometimes find a hand-printed message like “ANT MUSIC….”
So who are Marah? They are a gritty, loud rock band, in the tradition of Springsteen—but with the edge of the Replacements and the poetry of Dylan. I would probably recognize the lead singer/guitarist and founding member, Dave Bielanko, on the street, but only the fishnets gave Christine Smith away in the ladies room at 8×10. I don’t know all the words to a single song by heart except the second best song ever recorded, “It’s Only Money Tyrone.”2 I think I know the name of only one album (Kids in Philly) besides the new one.
Part of the blame falls on a group that keeps breaking up and replacing its members. I asked the newest, guitarist Bruce Derr, why Marah frequently disbands. Hired three months ago for the tour, Derr’s not even on the latest record, Life is a Problem (which was released on vinyl and cassette). “It’s definitely not Dave,” he said. “Dave’s one of the six nicest people I’ve ever met in my life.”
My friend Kim and I don’t really believe him, partly because Dave’s the one constant, and partly since Bielanco basically called us all douches when we didn’t clap at the end of one of the songs. I think we were awestruck. Honestly, even if we could tell the song was finished, the band immediately started the next without a pause, and then Dave mumbled a conversation with himself about our lack of applause.
Dave, we loved it. You are brilliant.
“I really don’t know why [members quit],” Derr said. It’s not like they bitch and gripe in the van, which carries the four men and one woman and all their gear from here to there to way over there, with Bielanko and Derr at the wheel; they’re the ones who don’t drink. Mostly, he told me, they ride in a comfortable quiet.
I’d like to give the talented (keyboards, accordion, harmonica, vocals, coolness) Christine Smith a medal for sticking it out so long—“five and a half years—longer than anybody,” she said. Except Dave, the only original member of the band on this tour.
But that’s a small part of the story. Most of the blame lies with the digital download. It is bad enough wrestling with a CD’s shrink wrap, then trying to pry the too-sticky silver tape from the ends before getting the damned thing open, only to crack the door off the plastic case. Sometimes you get lyrics and photos inside, but, Sonny, I’m too old and tired and busy to get my magnifying glass to read that shit. And when it’s one of those fancy folding things, trying to refold it and squeeze it back into the slot of the front of the case when it’s suddenly expanded and puffed out, like a fucking map, is even more frustrating. And then—FUCK this CD, bitch! YOU listen to it.
Now we have the digital download. We go to iTunes and buy whatever songs we want, sometimes not even a band’s whole album. We stick the songs on our iPods, where they compete with a thousand other songs we’ve not listened to enough, and now what? How do we know the words or the band members’ faces if we are not listening to the records in our bedrooms all day long, staring at the album cover, the images and words etching themselves forever in our minds the way serial numbers and “ANT MUSIC…” “FOR SEX PEOPLE” are etched in the vinyl of Adam and the Ants’ first album?
Who the hell is Marah? No wonder you missed them. But I didn’t. I didn’t miss one moment of their energy and power. I didn’t miss the chance to yell, “ONLY MONEY!” when it looked like Dave was trying to decide which last two songs to do, and I didn’t miss him say, “Yeah, let’s make this one count” to Bruce, who did make it count.
I didn’t miss the chance to hear my new number one favorite song of all time, live, like they meant it, like it’s never been played before, ever, from my favorite band, Marah.
1You miss something serious when you miss Chuck Prophet, too.*
* I would say you’re missing something serious when you miss Bob Schneider, but I’m wishing a lot of you drunk fratboys and party girls would miss that show altogether and leave him to the drunk grownups.
**The Boys are Back in Town” is number 3.