Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Greatest Story Ever Told

“I was frustrated and angry”

Sometimes a band and/or an album come along at the perfect time. When I was spending three years strapped into a dialysis chair for three days a week for four to five hours at a time there wasn’t a lot to look forward to each day outside of trying to make it through a work day and surviving. One might think with all that downtime at dialysis, I could at least get in a lot of reading, listen to a ton of music and maybe even write. One might think that, but for the most part those years are blank. I pretty much lost my fanatical taste and exuberance for music, I did read my way through many sleepless, restless nights, but couldn’t focus while going through those awful sessions. There are a few exceptions. Every once in a while an album or a song would come along to breathe new life into my waning soul. It was at a 2002 summer time Dillinger Four show (a rough and tumble Minneapolis punk band, who I discovered in the late 90s through another Allied Records punk compilation Invasion of the Indie Snatchers in my constant search for a new punk rock band to replace Husker Du, then Jawbreaker and J Church, then V Card, etc. in my weird little lexicon – see the prior two posts Ache and Letter to Hope), when opening act the Lawrence Arms cranked out the soaring and heartfelt “Nebraska” and blew my friend Jeff and I away. Initially, during their set, we exchanged accepting glances, because we were surprised to find an opening act we’d never heard of, earning our jaded attention. It was when we heard memorable lines from “Nebraska” like “your sarcasm radiates unhappiness / so withdrawn and rooted deep inside” over a dry repetitive guitar pluck, before exploding into an earnest desire to help a depressed friend (“your bitterness doesn’t surprise me / as these pointless days go screaming by / rejected sour eyes / can’t imagine blue skies / I wish you could find something to live for / besides the agony of bleeding towards this last breath”) that completely won us over. It was those understanding words that I needed to hear during a time when I felt sick and weak all of the time and wasn’t sure if I would ever get an opportunity for a kidney transplant. It was hearing those words coming from a self deprecating loose punk band that made it seem somehow more poignant.

Nebraska live 2009

The Lawrence Arms are (or were) a punk rock trio from Chicago, who have released five albums along with a couple of split albums, singles and a ton of punk compilation tracks (so far between 1999 and 2009). I love every single one of them. However, it was their 2003 fourth album, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which stands as their high point both creatively and for me personally. It is also their most overlooked. It’s one of those album albums. Most of the songs connect together and reference each other creating a big picture theme. In other words, it’s not the type of album where it’s easy to pull out a song or two for mixes to share, nor is it easy to listen to just one song. It is an experience. It isn’t a bloated double or triple album mess. It is concise at just over 30 minutes and stays true to their roots – roots that land firmly in the long standing sensibilities of Midwestern punk rock. Their hard partying tales of ineptitude and debauchery provide a picture perfect postcard into the life of the disaffected and downtrodden in an insightful and an alternately blunt and poetic way. This album is brilliant at mixing odd pop cultural references with literary masterpieces into a cohesive message of frustration and anger (there are mentions of Juggalos and Hot Shots Part Deux slipped in between references of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita, painter Elhajiman Young, writers J.D. Salinger, Tobias Jeg and Gustav Meyrink among others – and yes, there are actually footnotes for the lyrics!). It is that message of frustration and anger and feelings of helplessness that I not only identified with during those dialysis sickness years, but fed off of. Their music and this album inspired me and filled me with an energy that I had forgotten I was capable of. It was the 2003 holy trinity of albums spewing social and political outrage TSOL’s Divided We Stand, Killing Joke’s second self-titled masterpiece along with this, The Greatest Story Ever Told, that helped me find my outrage and verve and passion for music and life again. It became impossible for me to listen to a song like “Alert the Audience” and ever feel sorry for myself, while reclining in the pleather dialysis chair, hearing bassist Brendan Kelly’s raspy voice shouting at me in my headphones during the shredding climax of the song:

“I’m a clown and I’m choking on blood, teeth and tongue
Fuck the spectators. Fuck the ‘he was so young’
Fuck forced sympathy through lifeless glass eyes
Povichian voyeurs drinking my cries
Fuck faced trilobites waiting to die
I can’t stand the humor, and I can’t stand the lies”

Instead I became instilled with a desire to take back control of my failing health and fight to overcome or at least fail trying my hardest to make a difference, while scratching to survive.

“I’m a clown, we’re only here to entertain” is the thematic link that spreads throughout this album, starting with the ‘Hobo Clown Chorus’ that acts as the introduction amongst a hacking cough and the sound of a beer can opening. Could it be a statement of dissatisfaction and disaffection from the faceless masses (the 99%) who help earn fortunes and glory for the few and are left with little recognition and reward? I think so (“Tear us up and stuff us down the drain” is the Hobo Clown Chorus’ concluding outro). Fittingly, the incredibly detailed and impressive sleeve art is loaded with old fashioned circus imagery to go with the repeated circus references in the lyrics. From that opening introduction, the album unwinds as guitarist Chris McCaughan and Brendan Kelly alternate the lead on each song. This is an important distinction, because they are two very different sounding vocalists and have very difference styles - Kelly’s more profane lyrics and chaotic bursts of noise pair perfectly with McCaughan’s more refined punk balladry (whatever that is). I can honestly say that I have no favorite song from this astounding collection that sweeps by too fast to fathom – begging for repeated listening.  I absolutely love this album from beginning to end.

Come to think of it, listening to this album now reminds me that I need to heed the lessons I learned ten years ago. It’s time to stop the slide into lethargy and regain some fire. Isn’t that what rock-n-roll has always been about?

The Disaster March 2003


  1. I love this, Chris! You are totally in your element when you're relating your life experiences with the music that informed your sensibilities at the time. I swear, a memoir of your illness based in music is begging to get out.

  2. Love, love, love this!!! Once again, you have the knack to pull people into your story!!