In the early days of touring with Okkervil River, the van would be filled with boxes and backpacks of CDs from home, personal favorites we’d all brought with us, that we couldn’t imagine going several months without. We’d observe a strict rotation on the van stereo; if Jonathan wanted to listen to Lou Reed’s Berlin and I wanted to listen to my weird CD of Irish octogenarians singing a capella jigs with nonsense syllables it was tough shit; Jonathan needed to wait for his turn to roll around. We brought a log-book with us where we’d write down every CD we listened to every day, in what order, and who picked it. I suffered through some stuff I hated and I was turned on to some stuff I will love for the rest of my life. As the CDs spun, we’d talk and talk. Sometimes we’d talk about the show we’d played the night before, or we’d talk about how much more politically terrible and frightening the world was getting. A lot of the time we’d talk about the CD we were currently listening to – what was good about it, what was bad about it, how the drums were recorded, how great it is that Lou rhymed “vial” with “vile.” At the best times, we’d sit in silence and the music would just wash over all of us simultaneously, and there would be no need to talk, because we would all know we were feeling the same thing. I’ll never forget a drive through Minnesota in a blinding snowstorm listening to Glenn Gould’s Bach: Two and Three Part Inventions, with everyone tired and broke and suffering from that kind of hunger that instead of being uncomfortable gives a sharp-edged clarity to everything. I remember that CD spinning and taking off my glasses so everything was just a blur, and staring out at the receding edges of woods by the side of the road, with the windows sweating, with everything outside fuzzed-out by snow, and feeling so completely in the moment that I had the silly thought that I wouldn’t have minded dying right then.
There actually were exceptions to the strict CD rotation rules, though, and these exceptions were made for certain CDs that everyone in the van loved and sometimes felt like they needed. These CDs became almost like 45-minute, 11-song band anthems; we’d play them first-thing on the drive, or when everyone started to get so depressed that we all desperately needed cheering up, or on hour 8 of a 12-hour drive when the guy behind the wheel and the guy sitting shotgun were both starting to flag and needed something to bump up the energy. We’d quote lyrics from these CDs outside the van like our own secret code; every situation you’d get into on tour seemed to have been covered in advance by some song quote. Sometimes, on particularly scary drives, you’d feel like the music, the old reliable band-favorite CD, was protecting you from danger.
The iPod killed all of this, of course. Like most of the gadgets that rolled out in the years that followed, it numbed and fragmented the communal aspects of music, pushing us all into our own heads. These days if you don’t like the album the guy sitting shotgun is playing – and even if you do like it you usually don’t, because you didn’t pick it – you just put on your headphones and cue up exactly just what you want. It feels warm and comfortable, your own little world, but it’s a world you don’t share with anyone else. Instead of everyone being in it together, you’re on your own. If you peered inside most band-vans currently rattling down the interstates of America, you’d see a bunch of unwashed and tired men and women, bouncing up and down in complete silence, an unnerving frozen moment, everyone in their own separate world, and a lonely driver staring straight ahead, with his song on the stereo that no one else felt like listening to, even if they liked it.
The Baptist Generals’ No Silver / No Gold was an epic whole-band jam CD for a period of at least two years. It starts with a heavy, desolate ballad, with lead singer and songwriter Chris Flemmons intoning almost unaccompanied: “The way you run, your way is wrong. Because you miss the song your heart is singing.” And what follows is a dark and almost frighteningly solemn track, until you hear a ridiculously goofy early-2000s cell phone go off during the recording.
“GOD DAMN IT!” shouts Flemmons. He stops playing.
The cellphone keeps tweedling, a moronic little 8-bit wolf whistle. You can hear Flemmons get up and put down his guitar. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh GOD!” he groans.
“Stop the tape,” says someone tensely in the background.
“FUCK!” screams Flemmons, sharply and aggressively. There’s a long pregnant pause and then a smashing sound. It sounds like’s he’s grabbed a metal folding chair and is bashing it against the studio floor, going “God…God DAMN!” and you hear the other guys in the studio going “Heyheyheyheyheyheyhey, hey, it’s okay!”
And then when that song, “Ay Distress,” cuts off, the album goes directly into maybe its most upbeat number, a gunky fuzz-rock groove in 5/4 time, with what sounds like cardboard boxes for percussion and Flemmons screaming “ALCOHOL!” over and over again.
No Silver / No Gold is not an accessible album, and most of the people in the van disliked it at first. We’d gotten the CD during the previous SXSW, where we played 11 shows in three days (this is back when SXSW was basically three days long) and met Flemmons at one of these shows when he played during our load-out. I don’t remember much of his set, but our original bassist Zach was equally impressed and unnerved by it, and asked Flemmons to do a CD trade afterwards. I recall Flemmons explaining to him that No Silver / No Gold had been written while he was really sick in the hospital while, at the same time, his father was dying. “But the next record’s gonna be all rainbows and unicorns,” he said. As it turned out, the next record wouldn’t appear for another ten years.
No Silver / No Gold rattled around the van for about six months before we tried putting it on the stereo. As I said, most of us didn’t like it – or, more accurately, it made us too uncomfortable to want to listen to. It is a desperate, frantic record made by someone who sounds hurt and angry and confused. And it’s recorded in a very odd way. The acoustic guitar is puny and brittle, but also aggressive and buzzy, like a beehive someone just jostled. Flemmons has an odd way of stretching out and overenunciating his words and swallowing them at the same time, and his voice is usually hitting the compressor so hard that it’s distorted. Instead of a proper drum kit, most of the time there’s just a vague thud in the background. Broken-sounding keyboards rub against instruments rarely used in indie-rock, like a mariachi guitarrón. And most of the songs are very stripped down, almost solo. On “Creeper” the main accompaniment is what sounds like Flemmons whacking his acoustic guitar string with a tambourine.
No Silver / No Gold must have had some champion in the van, some lone booster who just made us play it again and again when it was his turn at the CD rotation. I don’t precisely remember who this was, but I bet it was Howard Draper. And then what happened was that, gradually and one by one, we all got it. The first thing we all got was that there was something valuable in the ragged honesty of what Flemmons had put out there. No Silver / No Gold wasn’t a collection of hooky pop songs and, though the band was on Sub-Pop, riding especially high that year with the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow, it wasn’t an attempt to fit into the indie landscape of 2003. What it was instead was a yelp of genuine and intense pain; it was ugly and raw and sometimes difficult to listen to, but it wasn’t bullshitting you. The third thing we got was that this felt like folk music, actual modern folk music that was the antithesis of watery “alt-country,” music that stayed true to the ragged shiveriness of artists like Dock Boggs and Clarence Ashley. The third thing we all got – by listen seven or eight – was that the lyrics on No Silver / No Gold were excellent, poetic but unpretentious, alternately biblical and conversational, at times steering frighteningly into a place that felt almost meaningless and yet mysteriously meaningful. There was an overall mystery to No Silver / No Gold and what felt like a mysticism; after awhile, I started to see it as a dark cousin to that great indie-rock totem album of the moment, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Like that record, No Silver / No Gold was kind of a psych-folk record, and it filtered passionate, larger-than-life emotion through a preoccupation with death, pain, and horror, employing lyrics that were willing to break with reality and scurry off into another dimension. But where Jeff Mangum seemed to see some kind of glowing light at the center of everything, the light Chris Flemmons saw seemed frighteningly dim and weak, always at the point of being almost completely extinguished. On my favorite song on the record, “Preservatine,” the chorus goes “Pull the light in! Pull the light in! Pull the light in!,” getting more frantic with each go-round, like the singer is desperately trying to keep some part of himself alive.
Most of all, the bleak themes of No Silver / No Gold made our mutual touring life, with its instability and scares and lonely edge, feel like not a big deal. “Has anybody seen my bag?” became the line from No Silver / No Gold that we quoted the most often in 2004, and that was usually because, on tour, that’s the question you ask each other the most, along with “When’s sound check?” or “Who do I ask about getting some beers in the dressing room?” Most of our favorite agreed-upon van CDs were by contemporary bands, and I don’t think it’s because we liked modern music more; rather, I think we liked these CDs because they were by our friends, or our enemies, or people we figured were sitting in a van somewhere too, halfway across the country and going through a grittier or fancier version of essentially the same shit we were experiencing. On “Going Back Song,” which must have been written on tour or in some tour-like situation, Flemmons takes the plight of not knowing where your bag is, or losing your bag, and amplifies it into a cosmic terror. “Has anybody seen my bag? Has anybody seen my bag? It’s the one I put together for the leaving, going back. Has anybody seen my bag?” These words have special resonance when you haven’t been home in months, haven’t showered in days, haven’t eaten a non-fast-food meal in you can’t remember how long, when you’ve broken up with your girlfriend or lost your job because of touring or missed your grandfather’s funeral, when you realize going back to your life exactly the way you left it just isn’t going to happen. In your early 20s, when you’re new to touring and you’ve never done it before and suddenly you’re doing it so much that everything that came before it seems unreal, words like that both scare you and comfort you. It sounds melodramatic and the truth is that touring can be great fun, and anyone who can do it is lucky to do it, but it’s also true there are times on tour when you can’t really control your feelings and you end up feeling pretty low, and sometimes only music can help, and listening to a CD everybody likes with all your bandmates all around you is the closest you can do to making it better.
It’s ten years later now and, as it happens, the Baptist Generals have a new record out, and it’s great. I first heard it when Jonathan came by the place I was working in Austin some months back and he brought a burn copy the band had given him. It was great to get together with my old van-mate, a veteran of our CD rotation system, and to stand at a kitchen island while he plugged some earbuds from his iPhone into his MacBook and played me “The Dog that Bit You” for the first time. It sounded great, a rolling groove that was ten times more relaxed and happy-sounding than anything on No Silver / No Gold but was still unafraid to venture to Flemmons’ old familiar dark places, like when he rhymes “Let’s write one for the remedy” with “My lack of feeling my extremities.”
“This is awesome!” I said, with the ear-buds in. I saw Jonathan’s mouth move – he was replying but I couldn’t hear what he said. “I’m jealous of this record,” I continued. Jonathan backed up a step. I took the earbuds off and realized I’d been shouting at him. Jonathan started telling me more about the record, about the themes, about how the drums were recorded, and then his iPhone went off and he had to take it.