Wednesday, July 28, 2004

I don't know at what age you should no longer answer the question of "what's your favorite band?" with the name of the band that was your favorite when you were 15. I mean sure, there are bands out there today that I really enjoy, certainly with The White Stripes and The Strokes at the top of the list, and bands that have been going a while that make me feel cool in my geekiness, like They Might Be Giants and Weezer.

But I was reminded this weekend that if you asked me that question point-blank and wanted the first answer from off the top of my head, I'd still tell you that my favorite band is the Dead Milkmen.

A little back story is in order.

I was one of those smart, rural, awkward kids who had no idea how to be cool when I was 12, desperately wanted to be cool, and tried on any number of really bad ideas about how to be cool. I went back and forth, for instance, between ugly gaudy clothes and ugly boring clothes. I once fell in love with a British Knights shirt that resembled nothing more than a louder version of the Maryland flag. I then turned 180 degrees to a phase where I mostly wore a jeans jacket that would have suited the Skoal/stoner crowd, but didn't work for me at all. Somehow I couldn't get clothes right at all (and, frankly, probably still haven't).

I also somehow decided that one of the reasons I wasn't cool was because I didn't follow popular music. Being a geek, I overcompensated poorly by starting to get up at 8 every Saturday morning and listening religiously to Casey's Top 40 from 8 until noon. (The most useless category of knowledge I retain is Top 40 songs from the first half of 1987; Billy Vera and the Beaters, Gregory Abbott, and Whitesnake will always be superstars to a certain part of my brain.) Of course, I did this just at the age when actual cool kids somehow started realizing that top 40 music wasn't where it was. Not having MTV was probably a big part of this for me, but I had no idea that REM, The Replacements, et al. were the bands people would really remember; how could they be cool when B94 didn't even play them?

I never really got into those cool bands and only have a retro and not real appreciation for them, but somewhere in all that mess someone played me the Big Lizard in My Backyard album. Nothing magical happened right away, I wasn't taken to a different place, or anything like that. But as I heard Big Lizard and later Bucky Fellini and Beelzebubba, things started to happen. I started to understand that there was other music out there, for one thing. But I also started to understand a more punkish, ironic outlook on the world. I started seeing how people who had gotten out of small towns managed to get out, and what they saw after they left. The Dead Milkmen taught me how smart people drop smart references. (The fact that Stuart got a pamphlet entitled, "Do You Know What the Queers Are Doing to Our Soil?" is funny; the fact that the pamphlet came from Pueblo, Colorado, is freakin' hilarious. Was in 1988, is in 2004.)

I don't make any grand claims that their music was a singular driving force in my life. But in retrospect, I can see that the Milkmen for me played a similar role to what the cool alterna-bands (like the ones above, and slightly later groups like Nirvana) played for other teens. It was the soundtrack of my later teen years, and it did what good soundtracks do--it set the mood, and it was catchy to boot.

This all came to me over the last several days after I went shopping at Amoeba Music on Sunday. Now, in case you don't know, Amoeba is the greatest music store on the planet, and I will not argue about this. They carry more new music than any other record store I've ever seen, and the also carry more used music than any record store I've ever seen, all at reasonable prices, all under one roof. If that doesn't make it the best, I don't know what does. Almost as an afterthought, I looked for some Milkmen discs that I only ever owned on cassette and thus haven't listened to in years. I found two--Beelzebubba and Eat Your Paisley.  

I put one of them in my CD player at work on Monday and I haven't stopped listening yet. Between the 2 albums I've listened five times, and I'll probably listen again tomorrow. I don't know if it's nostalgia, quality or both, but they hold up terrifically for me. Beach Party Vietnam is still excellent satire, Bleach Boys still tells the story of disaffectation in a funny yet deadly serious way, and Punk Rock Girl is still the greatest 3 minutes ever created by human beings.

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