Let me set the stage
Christmas morning, less than one month before my 68th birthday, I opened a small present from my wife Susan and found three CDs – one of which was something called “Darklands” by the group The Jesus and Mary Chain. I’d heard of that group, the name’s distinctive, but was not aware of ever having heard even one of their songs. At some point over the next couple of weeks I added it to my CD changer in the 2001 Taurus and played bits and pieces on trips between home and coffee shops or Trader Joe’s. It began to grab me.
Darklands was released back in 1987, when I was considerably younger and four years sober, and likely listening to a steady diet of Beatles, Beach Boys, Pretenders, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Springsteen, Thompson Twins, and Jefferson Starship, among others heavily tilted toward the 60s and 70s. With no thought ever for The Mary Chain. But some of the songs on the CD, in particular “April Skies” and “Happy When It Rains”, held me closer and closer and refused to let go.
So I went to Ebay and bought “Psychocandy. The Mary Chain’s debut LP (’85) and, I learned, a record considered by music aficionados the planet over as a breakthrough, game-changing creation. I remember playing it straight through on a trip up to North Portland and back one day, then calling my friend and music guru Gavin in Oakland and telling him that it was hard to listen to, it’s trademark squeals of feedback getting in the way of my pop-soaked mind. Gavin – who by the way had recommended Darklands to Susan in the first place, gave me the most beautiful explanation of why they used the feedback – as armor against both public hostility and adoration, kind of a “Fuck off”, and that Psychocandy worked better in small doses. I’ll get back to that advice.
Soon I was back on Ebay dialing up and ordering “21 Singles”, a collection of singles released from their six studio albums (not counting B-side compilations, outtakes, BBC radio sessions). It arrived, I played it over and over, got mesmerized and knocked out by “Some Candy Talking”, “Blues From a Gun”, “Head On”, “Snakedriver”, “Just Like Honey” – all of it.
Professionally I was in the process of re-writing and editing, with my wife, what would be my second book, “Astoria Strange”, and doing no other writing, so I found myself at the computer day in and day out, forever on YouTube, listening to – exclusively save for the occasional Brian Wilson song – The Mary Chain, each of their albums through, song by song, over and over again, never getting enough of some songs, humming and singing them around the house and out on walks, The Mary Chain, The Mary Chain, more, I needed more. I ordered the biography “Barbed Wire Kisses” by Zoe Howe, and when it arrived I stopped reading (and doing) everything else and read it straight through.
The Jesus and Mary Chain are Jim and William Reid, brothers from East Kilbride, Scotland. Other musicians have played and recorded with them through the time of their albums (’85-’98), some a little more than others. But like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan, The Mary Chain is the Reid boys. They dropped out of high school, they stayed in their room for years playing and writing music, hiding out from the Neds (non-educated delinquents: see pre-Trump voters), recording early material on a porta-studio bought for them by their father. Eventually they played out, got recognized by people in the industry, fell in with the fledgling Creation Records, played hundreds of concerts that lasted 15 minutes or so, their backs to the audience, because, always, surely, nothing else mattered but the music.
I began playing the album “Honey’s Dead” on YouTube every day, ordered it on Ebay, and one day, while driving and listening from first track “Reverence” to final track “Frequency” I had the sudden thought, the moment of clarity, that Honey’s Dead was and is every bit the recording that is “Revolver” by The Beatles, considered as perhaps the best ever album recorded. That’s how good Honey’s Dead is.
I call Gavin on a somewhat regular basis and talk Mary Chain. On the sly I ordered the LP version of Honey’s Dead and had it mailed to him and we have gushed over what a creation it is. I have since purchased the sixth studio recording – “Munki” – and the B-side “Barbed Wire Kisses”. I told Gavin I had a plan to record a collection of my favorite songs, if I could puzzle out the technology of recording off YouTube, and there were 40 to 50 songs that were musts. He laughed, in recognition. Like a fellow addict would.
But, enough of me. Let me offer up just a very few of my favorites to date, songs I believe are as good an any ever recorded by anyone. After I’ve listed these I’ll no doubt wish I had listed seven others:
Happy When It Rains: www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5x1F9ohRa4&list=PLjWqmPPqoIzeVdZ0yVk11LeDjfzVmSgQJ
Some Candy Talking: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTl3wdYEymw
Here Comes Alice: www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmxfBgaPqhE
Happy Place: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcPJu4uYuIU
So, I lied, I put eight instead of seven. I meant it when I said it. Honest. Tomorrow I’ll only put seven. Like, I’ll quit tomorrow. But, anyway, I had to add “Happy Place” because it’s so different, so happy, so poppy. They’re amazing, the Reids, the depth of their creativity, the brilliance and wonder of the span of musical style and spectrum. Gavin describes “Tumbledown” as “…demented hot rod music, like a James Dean death song at a surf bbq.” Must love that. And by the way, I love, love, Psychocandy. Other worldly wonder.
The picture up top, the one that says it all, is me – I’m there at the bottom – after 73 straight hours of Mary Chain listening, bathed in sweat on the floor, just one more, Susan, just let me hear “April Skies” one more time. Honest, Susan, I’ll be done then. I swear. Honest.
There are The Beach Boys. There are The Beatles. And there is The Jesus and Mary Chain. The three best musical groups of all-time.