Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees
The Bends was released 20 years ago today, so the music press tells me. I was pretty busy at work today and didn’t really pay any attention to the mentions about it that I saw go by, but as I was flipping through Twitter I saw an article where 33 musicians listed their favorite Radiohead songs. The part of the article that made the biggest impression on me was how all of these people talked about remembering this or that song from high school. Ooph. That made me feel old.
I feel the need to point out that the Radiohead band members are basically about my age, and they weren’t even called Radiohead until 1991, by which time I was living in DC and working at the Smithsonian. Not in high school. By the time their first album was out and “Creep” was big, I was not interested. For one thing, just as a matter of principle, I was wary of bands that got a lot of attention. I had just been through what one might characterize as a messy break up with a band because of my inability to handle just that. I was not going to let it happen so soon again. If Radiohead were that great, I was not going to fall for them. In fact, I was going to avoid them at all costs and I would maintain a willful ignorance about them for nearly 15 years. And for another thing, I was trying to carefully step away from the musical edge that I often found myself staring down; dark, introspective, angry, hurting or hurtful songs were dangerous for me. Where I’d been drawn to them for years, lived through them, took refuge in knowing I wasn’t alone because of them, I suddenly couldn’t handle it anymore. I didn’t listen to those kind of songs and feel comforted anymore, I felt like my bones were exposed. Everything hurt. What I did know about Radiohead was enough to tell me that I should not go near there.
Fast forward to 2007. I had just turned 40, I had two little kids and a job that was getting worse by the day. I was in a very static place and I’d packed away so much of what I had previously felt made me, me. I hadn’t even allowed myself to think about things like that because it seemed too risky to open all of that up. But then In Rainbows was released and I heard a song or two in my travels. Something clicked. “Bodysnatchers” felt like it was written for me. I downloaded it and would practically blow out my car’s speakers I played it so loud. I needed to feel it physically. And “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” made me dizzy with its perfection. I adore everything about that song. I love that you can hear their fingers sliding across the guitar strings, I love that you can hear Thom Yorke’s frantic intake of breath, I love the quiet beginning and the roaring end. And the lyrics, whatever may have been the intention, made me think of an earlier me. The heady, swirling, sweaty, anonymity of a dark, packed club, yet the lights picking up something here, something there, possibilities and impossibilities colliding, getting lost between the notes, dancing. Those two songs convinced me to buy the whole album and from there I was hooked.
Over the next couple of years I acquired the rest of their back catalog and confirmed for myself that I was probably right to have kept them at arm’s length earlier because they had a powerful pull. By the time I got to Radiohead I had learned how to step back if I felt like I might get pulled under. I know they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I owe them a lot for showing me it could be ok, better than just ok, to open the door to those murky waters again.