del-amitri-hammering-front

There were two things that annoyed me as a teenager: disaffected, cynical teenagers; and just about everything else. The irony of this may have been lost on me at the time, but without  emotional contradiction, adolescence is just one long series of trips to the shoe store. Other annoyed teens in my midst drowned out their own screaming brains and gasping hearts with slacked expressions and screamo punk that to them was the only real music, or else radio rap so over-produced, under-thought, and distant from anything that could be defined in good conscience as music that it would form a glaze of apathy over them, hardening with time.

I couldn’t stand a cliché. At least, not once I’d noticed it. The frustration for me came from lack of recourse. Every type of emotional reaction felt cliché to me. I couldn’t stand the scripted timbre of a person’s voice when they’d say things like, “Apparent-LY!” Or worse, the lines peers would lift verbatim from TV and movies and apply to their own banal lives. “You don’t understand me!” or “You’ve ruined my life!” Fuck off, your life is fast food and field hockey. Some little kid somewhere just lost his arm and now he’s got to find a way to work the fields without it.

Years later, I would conclude that we are all artists working in a medium of scripts, that these clichés are sometimes unavoidable but can be reinvented at will, just as actors rewrite their own lines without rewriting them. But that was years later.

At the time, I was frustrated to find ways to express myself freshly. I strove to find others who did so as well, be they contemporary comedians or musicians of ancient yore. Without question, this is what drove me to study Japan, and also what drove me to obsess over what seemed to most a rather unremarkable UK rock band. Of course, it was the mystique of these things that compelled me, but mystique is what you get when you only see the shore of a new land. The harshest lesson of my time in Japan was that Japan and likely every other place in the universe are just other places with the same trappings. I who was so obsessed with not locking myself to a rail, had become a complacent JR (Japan Railway) patron.

These, though, were lessons which came much later. In the summer of 2000, and indeed the surrounding several years, Scottish band Del Amitri was, as I say, my huckleberry. Their first album, completely different from any of their later ones, was also completely different from anything else I’d ever heard. Deeply alien, and yet more relatable than any of the music with which I was involuntarily saturated daily (man, it really was like being a born-again Christian!). Vocalist Justin Currie has said in recent history that the album was “just complete teenage diary stuff,” (see ~13:20 of this video) although a separate interview from shortly after the album’s release  reveals that a fair amount of it was embellished or written from an imagined point of view. But then, maybe that is teenage diary stuff.

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“Somebody said that all the lyrics are revenge trips against old girlfriends,” blushes Justin. “Actually, very few are intended to sound like that. There are lots of personal snippets thrown in there, but half of them are about fictitious people. For example, the chap who’s singing ‘Keepers’ certainly isn’t me, but the chap on ‘I Was Here’ is.”

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“Heard Through a Wall,” I figured, was probably somewhere in between, but it was the odd, brightly invigorating musicality of that song which initially captivated me. The subsequent track, “Hammering Heart,” however, seemed firmly planted in the vocalist’s reality, and certainly spoke to mine.

Lyrics: 

I suppose love lives in a dustbin behind the garden wall;
You have to grovel on the ground and be pretty disgusting to find it at all
And I suppose that it grows on you, standing there with no clothes on

And I suppose because there’s beautiful girls in this town, I’ll stay here ’til I’ve chosen one
I suppose life’s like a hunt, really, the hounds have fun until the fox gets bagged
And not one girl in this town will ever fall in love with me–they’ll get dragged.

Her heart speaks to me, says the room, the room, the room beneath her dress
And I suppose that it beats for me, like a hammering moon pulling tides through her chest
Suppose she says that she owes me all that she owns and all that she is
It seems to me, I suppose, that her heart’s not enough and her love is a swizz

And so, suppose love lives in a mansion
How in hell do I get over the wall??
But if my rope’s not stretched the right tension, I won’t cross this Grand Canyon at all
And I suppose that it grows like a tumor,
Spreads like a rumor like the grass grows an inch in every day
And I suppose that before I even know it,
The time will start flowing and the drum beneath my jacket will say: 
“You know you need her everyday.”

There’s the cliché of “love,” and then there’s the inevitability of getting dragged into it. When you’re young, or even when you’re less young, it’s easy to come down hard on yourself for buying into what you know with your brain to be a sterilely overproduced concept. But your brain can’t well stop your heart from yearning any better than it can stop your literal heart from beating. Fight all you like, but you’ll never quell your own biological appetites, unless of course you self-destruct. And that’d be just as silly.

The song seems to me to be a begrudging acceptance of one’s own human weakness–“This is dumb. But it’s science.” The positive outcome of this kind of meditation, of course, is that you can at least try and figure out how to make something you find dumb less dumb.

Later that year, I began my first romantic relationship. It was pretty dumb. When it ended a short while later, I was so immediately and thoroughly consoled by a headful of Justin Currie lyrics that it practically felt like cause to celebrate–“Now I know.”

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Afterthought: There was an alternative take of “Hammering Heart” which included an eerie alternate ending with additional lyrics

Additional lyrics:

The time will start flowing and the drum beneath my jacket will say:
“She is the moon.”
“She is the house.”
“She is the moon and she showed you her face.”
“She is the house and she opened the gate.”

I quite like this version.