My life with Radiohead, pt. 1: OK Computer

October 6, 2007

This is a story. It’s really long but mildly entertaining. This is what happens when I need a major distraction in my life.

I think it’s pretty safe to make fun of someone who’s got a real thorough obsession with anything. I just got done reading John Sellers’ book Perfect from Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life (a quick and good, albeit a bit cutesy, read; overall I’d recommend it), which chronicles his obsessions with U2, Joy Division, New Order, the Smiths, Pavement, and most of all, Guided by Voices. I get a sense that Sellers really truly meant what he said in the book, i.e., that he really lived the obsessions out; for example, in the middle of the book he includes a brief, 3 page outline of his day on May 18, 2005, which he spent entirely and exclusively commemorating the 25-year anniversary of Ian Curtis’ (Joy Division) suicide, which was preceeded by his stories of him making a trip to England just to go to Manchester and hang out where the Happy Mondays, Joy Division, and the Smiths were from.

I don’t take my musical obsessions quite that far. Admittedly, the closest thing I’ve had to full-on obsession was — and I admit this with a great measure of shame — my five or six year infatuation with Dave Matthews Band throughout junior high and high school. And even this only entered “obsession” status in 1999 or 2000; even then, it fell of percipitously with the release of the Everyday schlock in 2001. And even though I did make it to Miller’s — the bar in Charlottesville, VA where the band formed — I only did so in March 2006, a good four years after I had given up on the band, and only as a joke: I had really gone to Charlottesville to check out UVa and Monticello. (As I’m typing this, I’m truly disgusted that my post on Radiohead is being littered with DMB talk.)

No doubt the longest, and most consistently strong, relationship I’ve had with a band has been with Radiohead.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup on June 7, 1997, wiping away 42 years of misery for old timers, and for me, a little over one whole miserable season of heartache (I had become a fan during the 1995 Finals, when we got swept by NJ; the next season was the abysmal record-setting 62 win season, which did end with the frustrating Game 6 loss to the Wings in which Kris Draper got his face destroyed by Claude Lemieux; the following season we won the Cup… obviously, I had not suffered much). That was the first time I ever acheived sports nirvanna.

That was also the year that I kissed a girl. I had stalled for weeks. I tend to chicken out when it comes to these things (at least I used to chicken out). The frustration was mounting — she had already had her first kiss and wasn’t really in the mood for dicking around. But I was doing just that — dicking around. Her best friend point blank told me that I could have “tasted her tounge” already if I wasn’t such a pussy. I was blowing it. Finally, one fateful Friday night in January 1997 (four whole months after we had started dating) at the local roller rink where all the seventh grades frequented and couples-skated with their loved ones, I pulled her — in her white ringer baby doll T, jeans from JCPenney and BladeRunners — aside and said the four most romantic words of my life: “Let’s just do this.” I then proceeded to land 75% of the kiss, the other 25% of which landed on her cheek. But this didn’t even register until about four years later; I spent the next 25 minutes of my life in heaven. We couples-skated to “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly, and I remember thinking, “Here’s where we’re different R.: you believe you can fly, I know I can… and I already am.”

Later that year I’d make out for the first time. Same girl. I skipped the Good Friday service to go see Liar, Liar and then proceeded to count how many times we kissed in the theater. I started at number 3, because we had kissed 3 times prior to this “date” — once at the roller rink, twice more at the Valentine’s Day dance in the cafeteria — and reached around eight or nine before I lost count. Somewhere around the point where Jim Carrey’s replacement, the dorky husband, is doing his version of “the claw” (“It’s the Claw! You’re scared of the Claw!”), I somehow discovered her tounge in my mouth. I probably didn’t respond till an hour or so later, but it was cool nonetheless. We proceeded to make out in her friend’s basement for the next month while she babysat her friend’s little sister when the family went out. I’d rollerblade over and sneak in. It, at twelve years old, was awesome.

I felt my first boob in 1997 too. First kiss girl dumped me for a 17 year old from Pontiac — sadly, she was 13 at the time — and I got back at her by making out with her best friend in the same basement as before while she (she being her friend) filled in on babysitting duty for my ex who was sick that night. Victory. Then I dumped that girl for an unknown commodity, a girl I hardly knew save for the fact that she was the most decent looking girl in seventh grade that actually had large breasts and wasn’t fat. I was in a band then and we were cool so I could get away with all this. I took her to go see Jurassic Park II, and while she proceeded to join me in the worst session of frenching ever (her fault), I went in for the kill. To my dismay, two things happened: 1.) for the ten seconds or so I had my hand in the promised land (over the shirt mind you, so maybe this doesn’t count), I realized she wore a ridiculous amount of padding (7th grader??); 2.) after that ten seconds she did the unthinkable and moved my hand. I was outraged. I didn’t really like her anyway, and I don’t think she liked me. I tried to beat up her little brother at her softball game and her dad hated me as well. She dumped me over the phone the day after school got out and I thought it was awesome.

We were moving at the end of that summer out of the only house I remembered living in. All things “me” were changing. I was moving away from my first love (different girl… I was a man of the world at twelve), who lived in the house behind me. I was moving out of bike-riding distance from all my best friends’ houses, and in 7th and 8th grade, that spells doom for a friendship. The empty field behind my house, which had served as the staging yard for countless forts and games of “Smear the Queer” (which got awesome around 1995 when girls started playing) would be inaccesible. The basement — where my band Top Shelf had formed (then as ViruSphere) in 1995, written its major hits (“B.Y.L.”, “No Crime,” “Sunday,” and “The Ska Song”) in, and played a major show (one where we covered “Killing in the Name of” by Rage while our former singer got orally pleasured by a girl I had major crush on in the bathroom of the basement apartment we had built for my grandma) — was going away, and with it, so too would go my place as the drummer.

I spent that summer pretty bummed out actually, trying to enjoy the last of everything I had known. When you’re twelve your world is small so when everything changes it’s a little melodramatic. I decided to spend my days riding my bike around the neighborhood, seeing all my old friends, hoping to run into girls I had a crush on (rarely happened, but still pleasant), and most of all, listening to tunes. Everyday, I rode for probably miles, from friend’s house to friend’s house, to Tony’s Pizza, to 7-11, etc., listening to 89X. And over and over, I’d hear this strange five or six minute long track that sounded like some rock opera from the 1970’s. It had a bunch of different parts; it got quick, then loud, then really loud, then quiet, then beautiful, then really loud again — and then it ended. It had a weird high-pitched, obviously British, weirdo and an insane guitarist.

It was “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead. I had known “Creep” and thought it sucked, save for Jonny Greenwood’s mega pre-chorus guitar stabs which still rank among the coolest moments in music post-1990 (not that that’s a hard list to make or anything). Fortunately, I didn’t know of Radiohead when they were pulling shit like this (you have to watch this).

My fast-growing love for Radiohead went sort of on the backburner that summer cause of the move. I had important stuff, like roller hockey, NHL 96 on Sega Genesis, and watching the Red Wings Stanley Cup Championship VHS ad nauseum, keeping me occupied.

We moved in September and my world crumbled. No one at my new school liked NOFX, the Suicide Machines, or even Green Day — they all liked Puff Daddy. They didn’t wear Etnies, they wore Tommy Hilfiger, and I got my shit torn apart for wearing JNCO jeans to a friend’s house early in the school year. Everyone either was a guido or wanted to be one. I hated it. My best friend growing up was the king of the junior high school so I became sort of cool by default but everyone was fake to me and I never wanted to hang out with them. So I didn’t.

I spent a lot of time alone that fall, playing the computer, watching the Wings, etc. Finally, my sister let me enter her room and tape two albums off of her, Crash by DMB and OK Computer. I quickly fell in love with Crash because the “feel” of “#41” summed up just how depressed I was. I never really even listened to OK Computer, but I knew it was there and I knew it was supposedly great because my big brother had told me it was. The fact that he never said anything to me made this infortmation of greatest importance, and the fact that he scared the shit out me meant that he had to be right.

Finally the bomb dropped. I heard “Karma Police.” The outro destroyed me. “For a minute there I lost myself.” It was so beautiful, so cavernous. Like the singer’s voice was bending space and time, and understand just how much I hated everything about my life at that moment. The fact that I was trying to be someone I wasn’t so people I didn’t even want to be friends with would accept me. The fact that everything just utterly sucked and I was faking my existence for acceptance.Thom Yorke spoke into my soul.

I only heard the song once, and couldn’t even remember how it went. But it grew to mythical status. I scanned the radio trying to find it, to no avail. It was like that episode of Pete and Pete where little Pete hears “the song” and then forms a band trying to replicate it (“I was around / nobody knows / nobody knows.”) The song was like this enormous entity that was so foreign to me and so unattainable. I had to have it.

One night I went to Borders with my parents, and out of pity I think, my dad bought me OK Computer. My mom had tried to not allow secular music in our house, telling me she’d buy me any Carman or DC Talk albums I wanted if I’d stop listening to 89X. My dad rightfully found this a bit shit and bought me first Led Zeppelin VI and now OK Computer. This was the fifth secular album I had ever owned, the previous being Bringing Down the Horse by the Wallflowers, Duncan Sheik by Duncan Sheik (“I Am Barely Breathing”), Let’s Face It by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and IV.

I took it home, and put it into my boom box. Skip direct to track six. The dirge-like piano lead in which I now recognize as a “Sexy Sadie” rip-off. The drums and bass come in. The somewhat unsatisfying early chorus (“This is what you get….”). I knew something major was coming. I remember thinking: “I don’t remember how it goes but I know it was just devestating.” The anticipation. I tried not to skip ahead in the track, and I know I didn’t. I wanted the payoff. I wanted it to slay my spirit.

BAM. Phil Selway rolls in to the outro, and my life is forever changed. Through headphones, I thought Thom Yorke’s voice was climbing walls. I thought music could never sound deeper, more amazing, more utterly brutally fantastic than this. Ever. When those weird ghostly moans fill the space behind Thom’s wailing in the second go-round, I felt as if my body was being ripped open and my sadness, some Poltergeist-looking feathery thing inside my rib cage, was actually being coaxed back into its cage. I had a connection. “Karma Police” was my cure-all.

Over the next year I slowly but surely embraced the rest of the album. I found the bridge of “Let Down” to be even more compelling than the outro to “Karma Police,” cementing that song as one of my favorites of all time (it still is).

I forged an indelible bond with a band that year. Never before had a band met me where I was at and taken me somewhere so much better. I never looked back. I’ve loved Radiohead nearly unconditionally since, even as scenesters and indie rock elitists decided they were too cool to like them, even as they released lukewarm, filler-filled albums like Hail to the Thief (please, God, let In Rainbows be better).

I got on the train when I didn’t even know there was a train to get on.

You have to admit, for thirteen years old, I was pretty cool.


One Response to “My life with Radiohead, pt. 1: OK Computer”

  1. […] Shelly Burke wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThis is a story. It’s really long but mildly entertaining. This is what happens when I need a major distraction in my life. (more…) […]

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