(15) harvey danger, "flagpole sitta"
(10) primitive radio gods, "standing outside a broken phone booth with money in my hand"
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. The polls closed at 9am Arizona time on 3/10.
suburban angst: kenneth caldwell on "standing outside a broken phone booth with money in my hand" & fatherhood
“That music will rot your brains.”
I wasn’t listening. I’d heard about this band Sepultura, and old man Vic wasn’t going to dissuade me. The year was 1996 and I’d rode my bike to Vic’s Jukebox, the now-shuttered independent record store of my hometown. Vic, owner and musical impresario, was reluctant about the transaction he was about to make. Maybe it was the father in him, concerned the Brazilian heavy metal might irrevocably alter my worldview. Certainly, the incessant headbanging would be cause for alarm. But I never asked for Vic’s opinion. I’d had enough force-fed radio, Casey Kasem’s Top 40 sweet talk, the sea of sell-outs, MTV anything, Eurotrash de jour. All the formulaic ditties repeating in my head like a scratched CD.
It was the mainstream rotting my brains, so I thought. What I needed was to cleanse my aural palate with something genuine from Belo Horizonte: “Propaganda.” That’ll show ’em.
Let’s get this out of the way: The vocal sample in “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” is B.B. King singing “How Blue Can You Get?” I’m not privy to blues canon, so I can’t wax poetic about the legacy of the 1964 song, but it’s well-documented that late jazz pianist, Leonard Feather, and his wife Jane are credited with songwriting. Turns out the whole downhearted thing stretches back a ways. Suffice it to say, someone made substantial royalties on account of Primitive Radio Gods’ single. B.B. King earned $100 million through his illustrious career, a sum approaching pro athlete-level absurdity. Contrast that with the $1,000 Chris O’Connor—Primitive Radio Gods’ frontman—used to record the 1996 album Rocket in his garage with a four-track.
I used to make mixtapes on cassette to play in my dad’s bright red Suburban, which was a veritable Headbangers Ball on wheels. He and my mom were divorced before I formed memories, so I always knew of a rift between them. In the case of music, that meant my mother blocked MTV on cable, whereas my dad sometimes bought me the music she wouldn’t—basically anything marked “Parental Advisory.” For as much as that sticker stigmatized explicit artists, it served just as much as a marketing vehicle. My friends and I wanted those albums even more, especially when the label was diminutive. Ironically, that meant it was raunchier, if the schoolyard rumors were true.
But even sans advisory, some albums wouldn’t fly under her roof. Take, for example, The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land. I goaded Pops into buying the clean version at Target, and profane track titles on the CD jacket were censored with graphics of little insects that were apparently part of the band’s visual identity. “Smack My [SPIDER] Up,” I remember he said in the store as he read the package. A couple of weeks later, he was mimicking the British accents and helping me contextualize the synthesizer in “Firestarter.” “Hear that, son?” he’d say. “That’s the devil's fiddle.” He was joshing, of course, a subtle way of mocking the baseless fear mongers who make music a scapegoat. As though it might rot one’s brains.
Many other artists have performed renditions of B.B. King’s original song. Primitive Radio Gods opted instead to snatch a little piece of its emotional power, injecting it into what Billboard described as a “post-modern techno-blues lullaby.” Whether or not that particular adjectival phrase resonates, the song remains emblematic of its time, a pastiche in the beat of more established contemporaries like Beck or Portishead. New York Magazine called the song “Surrealist” and “trancey.” I can only explicate the latter word in this context to signify a dreamlike fixation with sustained tone and minimal notation. I don’t know what Surrealism has to do with it, but then, it’s hard to rely on music journalism to faithfully convey sonic aesthetic. Why do reviews so often fail to capture the essence of recorded music? I pity the writer who scrapes through Roget's in search of esoteric adjectives that never quite correlate with the sound.
Reports also suggest the Primitive Radio Gods hit was known as “the ‘I been downhearted, baby’ song” which does indeed sound like the reductive shorthand I would expect of conversations about top 40 music among the culturally inept. To be fair, the tendency to shorten the song’s title does speak to its unwieldiness. It originated, at least by one degree of separation, with the 1978 song by Bruce Cockburns, “Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money In My Hand.” O’Connor must have thought that title was a revelation. In a 2015 interview he said, “I threw ‘standing’ in front, but at the time I would have swore [sic] I lifted it word-for-word.” Given the gratuitous audio sampling, it would seem he lifted more than one thing.
The Suburban was a source of great pride. My dad had tricked out its stereo system by installing a powerful amplifier beneath the driver’s seat. It pushed some serious amperage to his “bass box,” two 12-inch subwoofers mounted in the back of the vehicle. I can still feel the deep-seated rumble in my ribcage, the squelch of treble as it reached deafening decibels, the kind you hear once and never again.
For a living, he hauled eighteen-wheelers in corporate relocations. He was a trucker. A mover. A professional driver. A Teamster. Somewhere nestled in my psyche is a memory. Or is it a dream? I'm a small boy sitting on his lap behind the wheel of a semi-truck, no trailer, gazing out in amazement through the massive windshield. I'm steering but he's doing the footwork, that magic dance of shifting gears. The earth is quaking or I am jostling with excitement or this is the bumpiest vehicle imaginable. We're high above the traffic, and my arms are outstretched across an enormous wheel, heart racing. I ask, would it be OK? Yes: I reach up to yank the air horn. The sky erupts with a glorious bellow. What a thrill to be driving a big truck! Then the memory blanks or the dream ends or the earth stops quaking, and I am fatherless again.
In Metallica’s music video for “Enter Sandman,” a small boy’s bed is splintered by a big rig.
It is said that “Phone Booth” gained at least some of its popularity because it was in the film The Cable Guy, which released in June 1996. That summer, the song began its run on the charts, peaking at #36 on Billboard 200 by August.
The Cable Guy soundtrack is a case-in-point for the eclectic mix of the era. It also showcases some decent hard rock. Notably, we hear White Zombie’s “More Human than Human,” that emboldened anthem in which Rob Zombie inexplicably proclaims himself, or at least the song’s reliable narrator, to be the Astro-Creep. Filter’s “Hey Man, Nice Shot” sets the scene as Jim Carrey's titular cable guy slam dunks in a pickup game of basketball, shattering the backboard. Silverchair’s “Blind” rocks through a bout of medieval jousting replete with chain mail and spiked ball-and-chain flails. And that’s Toadies’ spastic “Unattractive” playing in the car as Jack Black’s scorned character drops off his friend in pouring rain. By comparison, “Phone Booth” is the protagonist’s romantic jam of choice as the attractively-primped damsel visits his apartment to sip white wine. Not surprisingly, the B.B. King sample dominates the clip.
In the mid-90s, Jim Carrey was probably best known for his outlandish character in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Of course, that’s the one in which notoriously brutal metal band Cannibal Corpse performs their family-friendly jingle, “Hammer Smashed Face.” This fact illuminates the unexpectedly slapstick element of gore, a mainstay of heavy metal imagery. Like the satisfaction my friends and I derived from playing controversial PC shooter games of the ’90s, lost in the blood-soaked labyrinths of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom.
He was the Cool Dad, the kind who would drive me and my teenaged buddies to a hardcore show in the basement of a derelict Detroit building. It was the stuff of mothers’ nightmares, and morning television was keen to warn parents about violence in the pit. Sure, I did sustain several head punches and a few stray kicks of crowd surfers. Those were mere side effects of the vaccine that was underground music, our panacea. In retrospect, it does seem like there was always one oversized dude doing karate moves like he had something to prove, daring someone to dance with him, intent on inflicting pain. Notwithstanding that guy’s misguided mission, most of us were there to have our eardrums blown to smithereens, guilt-free.
Once I saw the lead vocalist of a band literally spit fire overtop the first few rows of the audience. There was Dad in the back of the club, just sipping rum and Coke and making eyes at the bartender.
Billboard described “Phone Booth” with phrases like “rote enervation of the working stiff” and “abstract dispiritedness,” which exemplifies the media’s blue-collar focus. O’Connor’s apparent angst toward day jobs surfaces in a question posed in the song: “Can money pay for all the days I've lived awake but half asleep?” He’d been an air traffic controller and was 31 years old by the time he landed a record contract. As far as the industry was concerned, he came out of left field. It would seem mid-90s pop music was characteristic in its unpredictability. According to former MTV VJ Dave Holmes in his 2016 memoir, anything could happen, radio-wise:
Nirvana blew everything wide open in the early ’90s, and radio jumped on the ‘alternative’ bandwagon, looking for the next big thing. They didn’t find it, but we got a few years of truly excellent one-hit wonders: New Radicals, Primitive Radio Gods, The Toadies; even the Butthole Surfers and the Meat Puppets had hits. You turned on commercial radio not knowing what you were going to hear next.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ song “Zero” never sounds quite like I remember it in the Suburban. Dad played my mixtapes thunderously loud. Let-the-neighborhood-hear loud. “Zero” has that screeching solo around the two-minute mark, a guitar like an incinerating hawk. I wanted him to turn it down but couldn't say so. I wonder if he felt the same, too proud to admit the pain. Instead, we let the tape roll, tweeters reverberating through our skulls, setting a new high-water mark for audible sound. “Wanna go for a ride?”
Top 40 is less about music and more about mainstream media marketing. According to Billboard, the phone booth imagery of the music video was also employed as a red sticker on the album and in all point-of-purchase materials. That probably means there was a slick counter display, Columbia Records’ effort to create top-of-mind awareness for a mundane—now antiquated—image for the sake of a sale. But they took their marketing dollar further by asking radio stations to give away prepaid phone cards. “The listener will receive free phone time and hear snippets of songs and O’Connor talking about his music.” What treasured secrets in such dazzling call quality! Primitive Radio Gods hysteria was in full swing, or so the label hoped.
The album’s second, ill-fated single had a much pithier moniker: “Motherfucker.” I suspect the sales team had a hard time with the counter display for that one. Still, the explicit title and its lyrics earned the album a parental advisory sticker which, for some, might have been a selling point. Rocket certified gold with over 500,000 units sold. Then, in 1997, Primitive Radio Gods was abruptly dropped from the label.
Pops wasn’t a stranger to shock rock. It was his generation that brought forth the sorcery of motown madman Alice Cooper, the subversive lyricism of Black Sabbath, and frenetic stage antics of AC/DC. Indeed, rock and roll has a legacy of veering outside the bounds of music into freaked-out, sexualized, and drug-addled performance. So, when I started bringing my heavy metal mixtapes to the Suburban, he was already well-versed. But something was amiss. He needed clarification: Did I believe Marilyn Manson was the antichrist? I laughed nervously, partly because I didn’t understand what “antichrist” meant, but also because I never identified with the Manson family. He must have been referring to the infamous artist’s sensationalized album title, Antichrist Superstar. Then he asked again, more sternly, as if to confirm I was not taking direction from a painted ghoul on stilts. Let alone a value system. Never mind the alt-metal mess parading the country as the Family Values tour.
What I couldn’t tell him is that, in his habitual absence, I took fatherhood wherever I could get it: bits of wisdom gleaned from friends’ dads at dinnertime, the gait of some guy seen on screen, the politic of a passerby. I adopted these deeds readily, hungry for a father figure. For all of the times mine didn’t show up—on account of his own drug-addled performance—other dads served as the next best thing. On the Rage Against the Machine track “Revolver,” Zack de la Rocha asks sardonically, “don’t mothers make good fathers?”
“No,” I answered after a long pause. “I know Manson’s not the antichrist.” I drew the line well before imitating freak-show personas. Even if my mother had allowed it, I was a follower of none. I saw through the bullshit charades onstage, the press kits, the headlines, the hype. All I wanted was to hear distorted guitar and double bass drum.
In a documentary about his protopunk band The Stooges, Iggy Pop said, “I don’t want to belong to the glam people, alternative people, to any of it. I don’t want to be a punk. I just want to be.” A nonconformist until the end, my father might have said something similar.
Much later, not long before he passed, I let him hear a contemporary metal jam by Old Man Gloom. He never came to the band gigs I played through my 20s, but I relished when he occasionally asked, “are you guys still playing metal?” I guess I wanted to uphold that perception, even as my aggressive days were waning. “There it is,” he said in his knowing way as the song went supernova. It was the affirmation I needed. For a moment we were back in the Suburban, blasting his bass box through the broken city streets.
I sometimes still hear that piercing ring in the final chorus of “Zero,” going out on a high the way my dad died. That was something Top 40 couldn't tell me. A word the DJ couldn't say. My ears are damaged. My ears are set free.
Kenneth Caldwell is eyes wide into the night, illuminated in electric blue.
lawrence lenhart on "flagpole sitta" & the pop stylistism of harvey danger
According to Laver’s Law (first published in Taste and Fashion, 1937), styles can range from the indecent to the beautiful. It all depends on the ‘when’ of perception. Meaning Stephen Foster is about to be beautiful (150 years after his time); Jelly Roll Morton is nearly romantic (100 years); Chuck Berry is on his way to charming (70 years); Diana Ross is verging on quaint (50 years); Kurt Cobain will soon be amusing (30 years); Bloodhound Gang will (once again) be ridiculous (20 years); and Avril Lavigne is next up for “hideous” (10 years). Already, last year’s Skrillex and Diplo single featuring Justin Bieber is dowdy. Making what smart? Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (Billboard’s current No. 1) is apparently as current, as smart as it gets. Outré (1 year before its time)? Shameless (5 years)? Indecent (10 years)? See Pitchfork.
A fashion-obsessed hipster, perched on the bleeding edge of taste, takes advantage of a Laver’s Law loophole. Because current fashion (year zero) is a fickle thing—mostly undecided, fleeting—a hipster’s preference is always the smart one. “You’ve never heard of Shamir? You should check him out before he blows up.” From this strategic vantage, the hipster is first through the turnstiles that separate what’s outré and smart.
I am wary of the notion that current fashion is “smart” fashion. From the Latin fatuus meaning stupid, fad was once “faddy,” once “faddish,” once “fiddle-faddle.” Add an ‘e,’ and fad fades. An apparition. When interrogated, you’ll play coy. You’ll tell people Tragic Kingdom was your first album when actually it was Backstreet Boys. (& WTF: Is that chrome Word Art on the album cover?) How things could have been different had you opened Jenny’s birthday gift first, and not mom’s.
Fad always seems like something someone else is doing. Your friend’s older brother duplicating radio onto cassette, compiling nu-metal playlists and selling them for $5. The girls who listen to ska wearing checkered bras. People in other towns wearing zoot suits and winking a lot, calling you “cat.” Makes you want to meow at them. (Even the Swing Revival is susceptible to Laver’s Law; it’s the nineties way of saying the forties are quaint.) Though La Macarena—we all did La Macarena. A fad begins when your older cousins teach you how to Macarena, and it ends when you forget to teach your younger cousins the same choreography. The chain gets broken. And the whole time you’re paranoid, unsure whether that sexed-up loop of a laugh at the end of the song is laughing with you or at you, you dowdy boy. (When I got married last summer, 22 years after La Macarena, my fiancée and I decided: no Los del Río. The DJ looked at us as if we were being “ridiculous” for even mentioning it. As if.)
The Century Dictionary puts it best, dubbing fad a “trivial fancy adopted and pursued for a time with irrational zeal.” To peer into the 1990s (from 2017) is to risk feeling “ridiculous” or “amused” for enjoying something that you once thought was smart. Only a song whose central thesis is self-critical (a deranged earworm with a hateful mirror) will allow us to not just peer into the nineties, but to inhabit the decade completely. “Flapole Sitta” is just that song. Named after a waggish fad from the 1920s, Harvey Danger’s one-hit wonder is Fadness Incarnate. But first, an assignment from the fourth grade.
In 1998 (the year “Flagpole Sitta” charted), we were supposed to find an obscure saint and report back on their Christian process. Ideally, it would be a saint with whom we could align ourselves for life. Clearly, the religion teacher had never before heard of Saint Simeon Stylites.
We had studied weak forms of asceticism before that assignment, I’m sure of it. I recall fabricating hypothetical forms of self-discipline with my friends in the parking lot playground: mostly calorie deprivation, self-flagellation, and in the case of J.S., there was a marked fascination with adult diaper-wearing. The sterile examples in the textbook, though, paled in comparison to Simeon, the ascetic who lived near the border of Syria and Turkey.
While Simeon’s monastic regimen began with deprivation (no eating, sleeping, bathing, or even sitting), it spiraled into a more extreme showcase when he, according to History Today (1978):
Tied a rope of rough palm [fiber] round his waist under his tunic that soon wore away the skin and produced nasty suppurating wounds. Legend has it that the worms falling out of the wounds gave him away…
Turned away from the monastery for this uncouth stunt, Simeon eventually travelled to a stony hillside that stood above olive groves and vineyards. There, he constructed a six-foot pillar upon which he stood, day and night, attracting a few curious pilgrims. Over time, he built the pillar up to avoid the crowd, and like the second third of a Dr. Seuss book, he was eventually standing on a plinth 45-feet high. The crowds continued to grow. This was Simeon’s cult of immobility.
At the time, Simeon’s story probably reminded me a bit of my own. In third grade, the class competed in a stand-on-leg competition. After several minutes, J.S. and I were the last ones standing, our thighs quivering. At some point, the competition had doubled into a staring contest. Our vanquished peers sat in their seats, cheering for one or the other of us, some in disbelief that we could endure—on just one leg! When I was the last person standing, my teacher was equally impressed. She wanted to know how long I would go. A minute more. A minute more. Eyes popped out of skulls. I teetered once, but regained balance with a single hop. Someone shrieked. And then, deciding we had to get back to curricular matters (there were Taiwanese pen pals awaiting our correspondence), I was asked to sit.
Simeon was just like that. Except instead of 8 minutes of immobility, he remained on his pillar for 37 years, enduring many seasons of the Syrian sun’s scorch, even winter snows. Village boys brought him daily bread, salt, and water by ladder or pulley. For exercise, Simeon practiced prostrations to God (a religious form of planking).
After he died at age 70 in 459 AD, his body was raked off the platform, and collected as a relic for the bishops of Antioch. Following his cue, other ascetics constructed their own “styles” (Greek for pillar). Even in his absence, 1,557 years worth of pilgrims journeyed to the remains of his pillar at The Church of St. Simeon Stylites, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This “infidel site” somehow avoided ISIL defacement during the outbreak of the Syrian War. It wasn’t until May of last year that Russian jets, flying over Qalat Siman, just northwest of Aleppo, raided the region, puncturing the façade of the church and toppling Simeon’s holy pillar.
Once, before the weirding of Brooklyn, Austin, Portland, and Nashville, Seattle was the countercultural capital of the United States. And that’s just the problem. To be credibly counter-, a thing must oppose capital in both senses of the word:
- It must not have a center.
- It must resist commercialization.
And yet halfway through the nineties, Sub Pop (the independent label that first signed Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Nirvana) sold 49% of itself to Warner Music. Thus began, according to Harvey Danger drummer Evan Sult in the A.V. Club, “the worldwide theatrical production of rock music of the alternative culture.” What was meant to be the normalization of grunge became the post- of it. Take a band like Jimmie’s Chicken Shack (Remember them? No? Not even a little?), and ask yourself: Did we really need Jimmie’s Chicken Shack? And what for? The only answer I can think of is that the Shack was part of the tedious buffer between cultures. And in the ambivalent melding of the two, Harvey Danger emerged with an unhinged swan song for the intergenre. Sult admits the song isn’t “the most obvious candidate to be embedded in ‘90s retromania or nostalgia, mainly because it’s so deeply skeptical about the decade’s collision of alternative and mainstream culture.”
Released in 1998, “Flagpole Sitta” peaked at No. 38 on the Billboard Top 40 Chart. In his introduction to the 33-1/3 book about Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, Harvey Danger frontman/Seattle-based music critic, Sean Nelson wrote: “One thing that can’t be argued, however, is the insufferably pompous entertainment industry maxim that a hit is a hit. (Some things are true even if music biz weasels say them.)” And what a hit “Flagpole Sitta” was! In an interview with Alternative Press, Nelson said, “radio programmers went apeshit with that song.” One station in Atlanta would play it three times in a row. “We went from being completely anonymous to totally overexposed in a month,” Nelson notes. Off-radio, the song’s ba-ba-bas can be heard in the trailer for Disturbing Behavior, and it’s the backing track to the go-get-’em montage in the teen-libido comedy, American Pie (’em being the female characters of course).
Recently, A.V. Club writer Annie Zaleski discovered that in a single week in 2015, the song “received seven more alternative radio spins than Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ four more spins than Beck’s ‘Loser,’ and more airplay than any recurring Green Day hit.” Why is it that “Flagpole Sitta” is still being broadcast 431 times a week while its contemporaries are starting to fade? Nelson’s theory:
I think it jumps off the radio. The fact that the distorted bass is a lead guitar element is really unusual. That shuffle beat is incredibly captivating and fun. It sounds noisy and chaotic and raucous, but then the melody is very catchy. And almost every line is sort of a memorably aphoristic slogan… It’s also really snotty. There’s a snideness about it... It’s very anti-earnest.”
Sult echoes this sentiment: “It’s both really upbeat and kind of savage and snarky at the same time.” Even the title, with its sensational spelling of “sitter,” is anti-earnest. Cacography is cocky; it’s a lazy way of signaling cool. See Korn. See Limp Bizkit. See Kottomouth Kings. Whomsoever thinks “Sitta” is cooler than “Sitter” probably suppresses giggles when they pass a Chick-fil-A billboard on the Interstate.
In high school, Christians gathered around the flagpole in the parking lot, holding hands, looking Godward. The first time I saw it, it was a dark winter morning, and I could see their breath as clouds of prayer. Keith, who I used to altar-serve with, saw me passing and invited me to join. I stood with him, with them for an awkward half-minute. I looked up, my eyes following the bright tilt of the spotlight, saw nothing at the top of the flagpole, and left.
In one of my favorite photographs, a flagpole sitter balances on a small platform 54 feet above a field of upward-looking marathon dancers. The photographer, who must be hanging out of a building window, is looking down on two fads of the 1920s, watching them watch each other. Like the Byzantine “stylites”—indeed like Simeon—this flagpole sitter has attracted a cult of immobility from the most unlikely of audiences. He is a modern-day pillar-saint, and the marathon dancers, whose only rule is to keep moving, look envious of the man’s stasis. They look like they’ve picked the wrong fad. Though of course, in the photo, all are static.
In high school, it seemed like we (all 1600 of us) were dating Ryan Faddish, a clean-cut looker whose brother and father were all jaw and crew cut. I remember us engulfing him at prom in orgiastic grind. Our knees dunking. Our torsos undulant. Our hands… Where did we put our hands? Where even are we supposed to put our hands when we dance? Though the photo suspends our vigorous motion, I remember bobbling to the singles of 2007, 6, 5, 4… I check the yearbook: Faddish is dead-center in the prom photo. As editor-in-chief, I made sure of it. With my 10-year high school reunion just a season away, I wonder why the images have not yet started to fade like in my father’s books. We sprung for the chemically-treated (patina-preventive) pages. It is a way of keeping smart (then) looking smart (now). Give us the gloss.
When Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly died (he was the face of the flagpole sitting fad), apparently he was clutching, with metacarpal rigor mortis, tattered clippings from newspapers that detailed his past life as a pole sitter. While his longest sit (49 days and 1 hour) pales in comparison to Simeon, it still bests my stand-on-one-leg feat by 49 days and 52 minutes.
I live in a town named for a flag. Flagstaff, Arizona was named for a flagpole (a stripped Ponderosa pine) staked in the ground next to the original post office. By the 1980s, the most famous poles were the ones in the small town’s several strip clubs. When I moved here—the flagpole was gone, the strip clubs all closed—I wanted my own flag experience, so I searched for the word in my iTunes and found Less Than Jake’s “I Wish I Had My Own Flag” and Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta.” I played these songs relentlessly for about a week. When I see “Flagpole Sitta” has nearly 14 million plays on Spotify, I wonder what percentage of these listens were generated from binge: repeat playing the retro-angst, retro-irony, and retro-paranoia, paranoia, everybody’s coming to get me.
There’s one review of Harvey Danger in Rolling Stone that claims, essentially, that they were no different than a boy band assembled by lawyers, just playing at “alternative.” Nelson claimed that the band internalized all the self-doubt. Whether nationally or locally in Seattle, the band was met with widespread skepticism. As Nelson puts it, “there was still a stigma about major labels vs. indie labels, commercial vs. underground… there was some subtle indie-rock McCarthyism going on.” This is why even Weezer was cold-shouldered by alternative insiders.
Worst of all, "Flagpole Sitta," which was written for thirty-somethings wholly familiar with the music industry, found a young radio audience who couldn't detect the irony, the anti-earnestness. Nelson describes the disappointment of being approached after a show by a teenager who claimed to have pierced his tongue because of the song (“I want to pierce my tongue, it doesn’t hurt, it feels fine”). How many others must have published zines upon hearing this song. How many others must have raged against machines! Even if I wasn’t the intended audience of this song, it certainly played its small part in setting me on a path that, for this moment, loops back to the writing of this essay. How few songs from the nineties can still provoke me into thrash-mode in my bedroom. See me headbang-ing the mattress, whisper-screaming at the cat, throwing laundry like confetti. And when I catch my breath on the floor, see my boxer-briefs clinging to a fan paddle, I know: I’ve just sweated to the not-so-oldies.
As far as I can tell, the most recent example of stylitism is extreme ironing.
This fad’s every bit as look-at-me as Simeon, as Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, as Harvey Danger. But it’s millennial, so fuck that.
As Nelson writes in Court and Spark, the mainstream made possible his love of Joni Mitchell, and of songwriting in general; this circuit completes with the ascent of his own single: “And let’s not forget that this whole scenario was made possible by the radio—possibly AM, probably top-forty, definitely commercial.”
I wonder if I encountered “Flagpole Sitta” while writing up my Simeon report that year, how close I might have come to detecting the convergence of the two fads. (Then again, maybe the saint report was in fifth grade, though I don’t think so.) I see Sean Nelson much like I see Simeon the Stylite and Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, momentarily suspended above me, attracting wide attention before coming back down to little, maybe nothing. Though Simeon’s pillar has been crumbled by Russian jets and Shipwreck’s sits were swiftly forgotten due to the Depression, Nelson still has golden evidence that he was up there at the end of the millennium; he has confessed that, with some encouragement from his partner, his gold record hangs low on his apartment wall.
Lawrence Lenhart holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His first essay collection is The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19). His prose appears in Conjunctions, Fourth Genre, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a profferer of fictions and essays at Northern Arizona University and a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.