Hey! You know you’re doing better Down the Pipes, (so don’t buy in). This semi-private, weekly newsletter is available to subscribers only, but a handful of posts (including this one) will periodically be made free. If you enjoy it, share it with a friend or consider subscribing.
I’ve always associated certain times of year with certain rock albums and bands, usually because it coincides with when I first heard them. The fall always reminds me of Weezer’s Pinkerton and Guster, March is when I first blasted The Strokes’ debut Is This It and got over many heartbreaks with Dashboard Confessional, May-June reminds me of Eve6’s Horrorscope and Tom Waits’ Closing Time, and the summertime reminds me of a bunch of albums from my teen years on Long Island: Phantom Planet’s The Guest, Something Corporate’s Audioboxer EP, Rooney’s self titled Rooney, Incubus’ Morning View, and Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American.
Weezer was my favorite band in high school, in fact I spent an entire year wearing a black windbreaker that said “Weezer” across the back in 9th grade. Their top billing on my Myspace favorites list happened sorta by default; they were simply the first rock band I felt I “discovered” for myself in the early days of Napster. My friends played me hits like Dookie and The Colour and the Shape, my parents exposed me to the classics like The Doors and Tapestry, and Z100 provided me with a steady stream of Third Eye Goo Goo Creedleback pop rock. But Weezer was an incredibly online band with an active message board (shout out to former Gizmodo colleague Kyle VanHemert who ran a small fiefdom on those boards) and the band's Buddy Holly music video spoke to this awkward middle schooler who still finds Mary Tyler Moore deeply attractive. I know I didn’t discover them first, but in my small world it felt like I did.
With Weezer, I was exposed to a whole expanded universe of nerdy alt rock emo music. Going as far back as They Might Be Giants (who I guess I was first exposed to via Tiny Toon Adventures, oddly), it seemed like I stumbled on an entire alternative history of rock and roll that was directly descended from the intellectual heft of Talking Heads and the glam crunch rock of Kiss. If you asked me in 1998 who the biggest rock and roll acts were that year, I would have said Barenaked Ladies or Fastball, maybe Matchbox 20. But by 2001, I was listening to bands from the 90’s who barely charted on college radio in ‘98, but were just about to make their mark.
To that point: Jimmy Eat World was the first band I can say I liked before the big single hit the radio. My best bud Matt’s older brother Kris had either Clarity and/or Static Prevails in his CD booklet, and by the time Bleed American was released in July of 2001, everyone I knew with taste had a copy (you knew if someone had an original because after 9/11 the album was retitled to Jimmy Eat World until 2008).
There were like 5 of us, btw. My little sister was one of them, Jimmy was her Weezer. But it wasn’t very popular that summer unless you were already plugged into an alternative tastemaker source at the time…WLIR on Long Island was ours, but back then every media market had someone like Harlan Friedman telling the angsty teenagers about the alt albums you weren’t hearing on the Top 40 station.
That fall after Bleed American came out, I was starting freshman year of HS and, as mentioned, 9/11 was one of the first major “once in a generation” traumas we’d get to experience together on the internet. Emo music just felt appropriate to everyone all of a sudden, the concept of “pop” emo would soon turn Ben Gibbard and Conor Oberst into millennial rock royalty. What was once Deeply Uncool to everyone for its emotional rawness and whiny suburban white boy lyrics very quickly became The Most Cool Thing to the girls who carried Cucumber Melon Bath & Body Works spritzes, not unlike how Nirvana and Pearl Jam would unexpectedly popularize flannel and ripped jeans a decade or so earlier.
So when The Middle started climbing the Top 40 pop chart in the winter and spring of 2002, there was a natural reaction among the less sonically gormandizing to be like “ugh, these guys? One hit wonders!” I get it honestly, the song is schlocky. “Do your best, do everything you can” is not exactly inspired poetry, especially compared to other songs on the album that never recieved as much radio play, like A Praise Chorus, which cleverly tells the story of an unknown rock band getting its first spark of inspiration through other bands’ music:
“Crimson and Clover, over and over.” -A reference listening to the Tommy James & The Shondells hit on repeat
”Our House in the middle of the street,” (Madness’ Our House)
”Why did we ever meet?” (The Promise Ring’s Why Did We Ever Meet)
”Starting my rock & roll fantasy.” (Bad Company, Rock ‘n Roll Fantasy)
"Don’t don’t, don’t let’s start.” (They Might Be Giants, Don’t Let’s Start)
”Why did we ever part?" (The Promise Ring again, All of My Everythings)
”Kickstart my rock and roll heart.” (Motley Crüe, Kickstart My Heart)
But Weezer, Jimmy Eat World, and a bunch of other stuff in Kris’ Honda Civic CD booklets were the beginning of my understanding of popular tastemaking. I was exposed to tons of music months or years before the rest of the world would get to hear it. Fountains of Wayne (RIP Adam Schlesinger) gave us Utopia Parkway before everyone else got Stacy’s Mom, Maroon 5 was called Kara’s Flowers when Matt first found them, Phantom Planet was best known in our circle for climbing on the rafters of The Downtown before California took off, and Taking Back Sunday was screaming into microphones at The Vanderbilt with a brand new group called Brand New.
I bring this all up because it’s mid-July, right around when Bleed American first came out 21 years ago. The album was the band’s’ third, and was likely going to be their last if it didn’t do something for them. The music industry was a different beast in those early Napster years, a beast best described as “Giant in freefall off the beanstalk.” If you were a band trying to grind it out on tours, merch, and label advances in those early years, you needed a hit to keep it going or you were done.
With that context in mind, The Middle becomes a different song. “Hey, don’t write yourself off yet, it’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on” is like putting music to Jim Adkins own pre-show affirmations, the kind of thing all artists and creators are forced to tell themselves when they feel broken and beaten down by the industry and general public who doesn’t yet appreciate their blood, sweat, and tears. In fact, the title track, Bleed American, was written about the panic attacks and self-medicating artists endure in that tortured, seemingly endless period between knowing their work is great and trying to build a mass audience that sees it that way too. The music video takes on a deeper, explicit meaning as well, a play on the 1999 American Pie motif of a wallflower dude feeling awkward at the sexy teenage underwear party, a desperate final attempt by an uncool band to use the modern sex appeal of the era to “be just fine.”
The appeal worked. Jimmy Eat World got there with The Middle and a smattering of alternative hits since, though I imagine the bulk of their income is still reliant on near-constant touring, a reality of 21st century music biz that was only hastened by streaming services. Everyone knows the deal by now: streams aren’t worth shit to anyone (labels, artists, or the streaming companies), nobody buys albums anymore, and with the reconstitution of the Clear Channel monopoly as LiveNation and IHeartMedia, concert ticket prices have soared to new highs. Jimmy is one of the lucky ones, he can still sell a few thousand tickets in pretty much any city in the country. He got out of the middle, but as he points out in a sonically-similar follow up, Big Casino: “I’ll tell you something else that you ain’t died enough to know: There’s still some living left when your time comes and goes.”
It breaks my heart thinking about the number of bands I’ve loved that made great music, but never got over that hump between making something special and being publicly considered special for making it. Go check out the bands Filomath (FKA Carbondale) or Hellogoodbye for an example of what I’m talking about. Or Zolof and The Rock and Roll Destroyer. The Rentals. Brandston. Moth. Spiraling. Bleu. These are just the ones I can recall off the top of my head; there are probably hundreds or thousands more who created something extraordinary that only a handful of people ever got to appreciate. Some of them are still out there trying to find their audience 20 years later. I respect them the most.
Anyway. I’ve been thinking a lot about The Middle lately, and not just the song. At 35, 21 years from the release of Bleed American, I am just about a middle aged millennial, one of the first but certainly not the last. I’m living in a red county as a liberal whose neighbors are surprisingly not all fascists, in fact I think most of them would identify as “centrists.” The Middle is where this country always got along (back when it got along).
Despite all the external horrors of what feels like a lifetime of rollbacks towards medieval times, just hold tight…you’re in the middle of the ride, and as a longtime trendspotter I can feel the countermovement roiling just beneath the surface. More on that some other time, I'm sure.
My own creative work here on this very blog, my friends with their own bands, Substacks, book proposals, start ups, film projects, and dreams for so much more than this…there are a lot of us in the middle of something, alone together. It’s all too easy to feel like no one cares, but I assure you, even the biggest artists in the world spent time tinkering in the garage. The process of building an audience for your ideas always requires some self-affirmation that this is all headed somewhere great, because if you don't believe in your work before anyone else discovers it, how can you expect anyone else to believe in it when they do? To that end:
I know I’m doing better on my own.
I’ve got it made, I’ve got it down.
I’m on my own, I’m on my way.
Driving in the sun, looking out for number one.
Live right now. Just be yourself. Don’t worry if it’s good enough for someone else.
It just takes some time. And I'm waiting for my time to come.
My name is Jonas but they call me Doctor Worm.
Color me misunderstood, but I won’t go Hollywood.
Until next time!
I listen to They Might Be Giants on a daily basis…they sing the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse theme song! Hot dog!
Sincerely, a toddler mom