The question made us laugh. You can see it in the finished clip. “If we ever break up, it’ll be the end of this site,” Mary added. “So everyone keep your fingers crossed.” It was a joke, the kind of joke you make when you’re sure something won’t happen. The producer laughed. He put that line in the clip, too. After it aired someone said karma would get us for being so happy on national television. That seemed unlikely. It still seems unlikely. But jokes have a way of turning around on you.
* * *
We met in the spring of 2004, the prelude to a sweaty city summer marked by street protests and political fundraising shows in concrete-walled lofts. Although our backgrounds were dissimilar—suburban New Jersey vs. small-town Maine, the bustle of the Shore vs. silent lakes, film school vs. an economics major—our lives then were very much alike. We kept strange hours, in Bryan’s case because he was freelancing and enmeshing himself in the New York music scene, armed with both a guitar and a camera; in Mary’s case because she was attending grad school and working a part-time night job. We hardly slept, it seemed. We met after our respective band practices, drank endless cups of coffee and roamed the streets until our feet ached, ducked in and out of dark venues, splurged on a giant bag of chips at the deli. We were young and eager and full of energy that we did not know how to direct.
There was a lot of music that was ours: music we made, music we discovered. But the Thermals were special. We saw them with a group of friends, our first real outing together, after some perfunctory introductions at a cheap burrito place in the East Village. The point of the show was Sleater-Kinney, but this other band was opening, and from the first propulsive chords everything about the Thermals was perfect. They were fast and urgent, tearing through songs that sounded the way New York felt then—even though they were from the Pacific Northwest. Their music said Don’t hesitate! Just do it! Go!
That night our friends disappeared, conveniently, leaving us to walk alone—together—to the subway.
* * *
It’s astonishing how quickly eight years can pass. Presidents come and go. The venues that once felt like second homes get shuttered: Luna Lounge, Sin-e, Rothko. Shoes wear out. Your face changes. It feels like it happened faster than a three-minute pop song, and yet evidence of a long, rich history abounds. There are photographs and Christmas ornaments and refrigerator magnets and jointly-purchased pillows, cards signed by each other’s parents, two sibling gray cats.
We moved in together after a few years. A few years after that we left New York and moved to Portland, Maine. Some people thought that meant we were careening toward a final chorus: get married, buy a house, let a new sort of future begin. We talked about it once in a while, usually in the car, going nowhere in particular. It seemed abstract and impossible to grasp. Neither of us had conventional jobs; Bryan worked at a local venue and took as many freelance photography assignments as he could, while Mary worked as a freelance writer and editor, struggling to pay off grad school, getting up before sunrise to work on a book that would never get published.
“What will we do with ourselves?” we asked each other. We never had an answer.
The thing we knew how to do together—the thing we did best together—was make things. Projects, we called them. There was this website. There were shows we booked, posters and flyers we made. We DJ’d together, under the moniker The Mayan Empire. We thought up slogans and put them on t-shirts. We lay in bed designing websites we knew we’d never launch; we registered dozens of domain names and promptly forgot them. We invented ridiculous alter egos and then started an even more-ridiculous band for them. There was the night we drove to Asbury Park to play at a legitimate music festival, and we wore our masks and costumes, rolled around on the boardwalk making deafening feedback and screaming into microphones. People weren’t sure whether to laugh or applaud, so they did both.
The point was Do It Now. The future was the hard part. That was the part we couldn’t figure out.
* * *
Have you ever seen a band go off-track mid-song? It can happen suddenly or it can happen gradually. The drummer and the bass player fall out of sync for a beat, come back, fall out again. The guitars plow ahead but can’t find the rhythm again. They try to keep the song alive—c’mon, you guys, we know this one, we’ve been playing it for years—but there’s nothing to be done. It isn’t anyone’s fault. You have to stop.
After several years in Portland Mary got a new job in New York, the kind of job she’d always wanted. Maybe that was part of it: the move, the long hours, the newfound immersion in politics and media. Bryan returned to the city with a heightened passion for music—this time as a promoter, a band manager, a stage manager, a professional photographer, not just as another dude in a band. Eight years! The things we had in common felt more and more distant. We were figuring out what to do with ourselves, but separately, not as a unit.
Music—good music, anyway—is built on tension. The loud and the quiet. The steady and the sprawl. The twitch and the soar. The Thermals do this, brilliantly. We’ve seen them since that fateful night in 2004, and every time it’s a revelation. They play so hard you think they might break, but they don’t, they never do. We did.
The Thermals can no longer be music that’s ours as a couple. In that sense their music is ruined, and we’ll never get it back. We are disentangling ourselves, selling the car, looking for new places to live, taking one cat apiece. But as music we love we’ll still have the Thermals, the same way we’ll still have everything we loved and always will love about each other. It’s just that their records can’t be the soundtrack to our jointly-created lives, nor to a future that’s built on our shared past. We’ll listen and we’ll laugh, and we’ll catch up over coffee, and then we’ll walk home, but not together.]]>
Ruined Music began as an offhand idea over a plate of Thai noodles one afternoon in Brooklyn; somehow this became an MTV News crew telling me to “look like you’re really posting something to the site” as they filmed over my shoulder. (For those of you who saw the clip and asked, yes, Buckley the cat is still available for commercial work.) Now we — and by ‘we’ I mean those of us responsible for running, updating, and otherwise steering the site — have moved on to other projects, other agendas. Ruined Music didn’t get dumped; it just ran its course.
Co-founder Bryan Bruchman and I were always amazed, though in retrospect we should have stopped being so, by the emails we received. We couldn’t post everything that came in, but we read every message you wrote, the funny ones and the sad ones, the profanity-laced ones, the ones that still believed in love, the ones that didn’t want to give up. I think, looking back on it, that the ones I will remember longest were those we received from young girls in faraway countries – places where a relationship can be ruined by parental decree, social mores, and customs that mean nothing to teenagers in love to the sound of the radio. I hope everything worked out for them. I hope everything worked out for everyone.
There’s a long list of people who deserve thanks, but I’ll keep this as concise as I can. MC Rob Holmes wrote the very first Ruined Music story on request so the site could go live. Fun fact: Rob is about to celebrate his first wedding anniversary, and yes, he played Superdrag at the reception. The nice folks at WNYC had me on the air soon after the launch, and I’m convinced that brought the site to an audience it wouldn’t have reached otherwise. Several friends contributed stories, advice, and encouragement, including Liz, Emily, Brendan, Annie, Annette, Mike, Carrie, Felicia, Eric, the entire Serious Business family, and many more. Very special thanks to the Shondes, Beat Radio, the Unsacred Hearts, Nichelle Stephens, Mick Stingley, and Brandy Barber for making the site anniversary party at the Delancey such a success.
Most of all, thanks to the people who sent stories, read the stories, linked to RM on their blogs, contacted us for interviews, and helped spread the word in whatever way they could. This little project is over but it isn’t: next time someone or something leaves us with a gaping hole in our record collections, we’ll know that it will hurt but we will live to tell the tale. And that’s exactly what we’ll do, all of us.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for writing.
For RM HQ,
ps. If you’d like to stay in touch, and I hope you do, I can be found here and here and here. Bryan is here and here and here.]]>
It was getting late, probably around three in the morning. The party downstairs was starting to die down. This boy was irresistible.
It was late September of my freshman year in college. I’d had the best summer of my life, emancipated from the shackles of responsibility. Untied. Liberated. Self-governed. I belonged to no one, to no foundation, no institution. In between the bonds of high school and college I celebrated myself. My friends felt it, too. That summer we laughed harder. We stayed out longer. Everyone and everything seemed to be at peace. And nothing, even the uncertain future ahead, was anything to fret about. We breathed in the summer sky and felt limitless.
But now, the air was starting to cool and the sun began to set earlier each day. There was something magnetic about his eyes. Green or hazel? I couldn’t tell. There was something in those eyes I couldn’t read, or touch – something wild.
I had met him a few nights earlier at a party. He was a junior. We had glanced at each other across the room. I felt that I already knew him; he looked like the kind of guys I knew in high school.
When the cops came to issue a noise complaint I followed him down to the basement of the house – I was underage, trying not to sway when I spoke. We ended up talking in that basement for hours. He wore seersucker shorts and a white polo shirt. We smoked cigarettes and talked about eighties music: The Band, Phil Collins and The Talking Heads billowed over the smoky room and left us buzzing, humming, smiling about the promise of someone and something new.
Eventually we moved to his room on the third floor of the frat house. We sat on a moldy, beer-stained couch, but I overlooked the squalor of the setting and felt my chest flutter.
Then paint-chipped door of his room burst open. Three of his friends fell in, toppling over each other. They sat down and nodded in my direction. I sat quietly, shifting in my seat between the couch cushions.
“Does she…?” Mark’s best friend asked, lifting his chin toward me.
“No, I don’t think so,” Mark answered.
Do I what? I shifted in my seat again. The crust on the cushions grazed my legs. Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” played in the background; the metallic rhythm of the song drilled against frat photo composites lining the walls. A cool breeze floated in through the open windows. What were they talking about? Do I what?
An awkward silence radiated. Phil Collins persisted quietly in the background. Mark scooted away from me. He leaned back into the couch cushions and reached into his front jean pocket. He pulled out a small clear pink plastic bag, the smallest bag I had ever seen. I stared. Phil Collins droned on about being too young, his love just begun. One of the frat brothers handed me a framed picture of Mark and his family. I held it briefly before turning it over to Mark. He looked young in the photograph. He was smiling and holding a diploma, his dad’s hand on his
Mark lay the picture face up on the coffee table in front of the couch. His friends sat across from us, listening to the music and bobbing along, grinning. He emptied the bag onto the picture. White crystals scattered across the glass. I looked at Mark, but his face was expressionless, his eyes focused on the frame before him. He mechanically removed a twenty-dollar bill and credit card from his wallet.
My cheeks felt hot. I’d heard numerous accounts, warnings and nicknames for the substance in front of me. But I had never seen it, I’d never sat down with it poured out in front of me. The breeze had faded and the the room felt suddenly stuffy. Stuffy and still. Motionless.
The metallic beat of “Sussudio” fell hollow in the background.]]>
This is total Ruined Music theme song material. Check it out (and thanks, Matthew).
Shrag: Forty Five 45s
Bryan asked Helen Shrag about those 45 ruined songs, self control and why some bands should just shut up and play.
Bryan/RM: I love the video for “Talk To the Left.” It looks like you gave the bar a good scrubbing! The song gives some good advice to keep one’s mouth shut and get down to business: Aside from romantic situations like the ones in the song, can you think of any other times when it’s best to keep your mouth shut and get to work?
HS: Our friend Tony Tronic did a remix of that song and basically inverted the message, isolating all the sleazy words we sing and putting them together again so that the end result is us filthily urging potential lovers to ‘talk dirty’ to us during the ‘romantic situation.’ It was worryingly convincing. And yeah, the video was meant to stress that we weren’t making a dirty song (we’re cleaning!), with a nod to the OCD leanings of some of the band.
I personally should be advised to keep my mouth shut at all times. It’s always good advice for me, I am terrible. Especially if I have a crush on someone, I am embarrassingly obvious. Not even obvious, flagrantly overt. No self-control.
Shrag keeps it clean.
RM: On a related note, what’s your best between-song stage banter?
HS: As far as between-song banter goes, it normally involves the rest of us being mean to Bob about incessantly tuning his guitar. He usually keeps quiet and lets us abuse him, but he can give as good as he gets when he chooses to, and normally he wins. In general I am not keen on us doing between song banter. We’re all too awkward and annoying and probably not very funny. Some people are very good at it, but others (like us) should just play the songs.
RM: I’d heard Shrag before, but it was a post on Fluxblog that led me to your excellent song “Forty Five 45s.” Relationships ruining songs is, obviously, a big theme around here, and that’s exactly what your song is about. Is it a true story? Have you really had forty-five different songs get ruined?
HS: It’s ace that there’s a site all about this. I always thought the ruined records thing was a symptom of the way I listen to them; I’m not always listening to a broad range of music but tend to get obsessed with records one at a time and listen to them repetitively, which is probably a really rubbish way to listen to music, but anyway. The result is I get this intense association between whatever was going on at that time and the particular music I was listening to. And I will inflict it on others over and over again so they are forced to join me in the associaton. With boyfriends it’s always intensified cos you feel all romantic and profound, so songs get invested with this huge significance, and that makes for bad fallout if things go wrong.
Yeah, the song is kind of based on a specific experience, or set of experiences, from when I was younger and had gotten involved with this person who knew tons more than I did about music. I think I was a little bit in awe in that way you are when you’re younger and infatuated with someone. He’d make me mixtapes that I would listen to obsessively, and then I’d go out and buy all the records by each of the bands he had put on there, that kind of thing. I’d listen to the records at home and try to contextualise his choice of songs (Why didn’t he put this one on there instead? What could this mean about him? Or about how he feels about me? Etc., etc., yawn). This meant that whole discographies were potential casualties – I find it very hard to listen to anything by American Music Club, Slint, the whole of Gentlemen by the Afghan Whigs (though I can listen to Black Love because I unwittingly salvaged it by playing it all the time with one of my best friends at the time; I associate it more with her than him). “One More Hour” by Sleater-Kinney, despite being one of my favourite songs ever, I find difficult. “Bachelor Kisses” by the Go-Betweens. “Fuck and Run” by Liz Phair. “Shadowplay” by Joy Division. So much good stuff — which made me feel slightly less facetious about the ‘forty-five’ 45s thing.
When the relationship ended I became aware of the secondary loss, which was all the music I had nailed firmly, desperately, to it. It wasn’t his fault, it was mine, I think most of the relationship had gone on in my head anyway, but there it is, inextricably associated, and broadly unlistenable. Also, it sucks if you go out with or have a crush on someone in a band that’s actually good. Following the inevitable failure of the relationship or crush, you’ve absolutely lost out there. It’s very difficult to disassociate the object of your affection from the record when they are actually singing/noodling/whatever.
RM: You’re our first international interview, by the way. So who are some new U.K. bands we should watch for?
HS: Some bands we’ve played with and who we like a lot: Das Wanderlust, Venus Bogardus, Peepholes, Los Campesinos!, Congregation.]]>
We drew two random entries from all the responses we received, and the winners are…
Laura Nash, who said: “Anything by the Mountain Goats, but to make me fall in love? ‘Last Man on Earth’ off Heretic Pride. Anyone who would think a love song about zombies belongs on a mix tape gets my vote.”
Eric Block, who said: “‘The Shining,’ by Badly Drawn Boy. It’s kind of depressing, I know, but ever since it was used in the TV show Saved I’ve wanted to fall in love listening to that song.”
Congratulations, Laura and Eric, and thanks to everyone who wrote in!
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is in theaters now.]]>
But when presidential candidates appropriate songs – broadcasting them to far more people than I ever could – all they get are sternly-worded statements from the artists themselves.
Remember when ladyrockers Heart laid the smackdown on ladypol Sarah Palin for using their song “Barracuda”? Well, John McCain’s campaign has run afoul of yet another band: the Foo Fighers are mad as hell that the GOP candidate is using their 1997 single “My Hero” as his new theme song, and they’re not going to take it any more. (Mmm, but what are the odds McCain will pay a dime in fines?) From the Guardian:
The band said that permission to use the song was not sought from them, their management, their label or their publisher.
“The saddest thing about this is that My Hero was written as a celebration of the common man and his extraordinary potential,” the statement reads, although many fans have speculated that the song, written by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, refers to his admiration for former Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain.
“To have it appropriated without our knowledge and used in a manner that perverts the original sentiment of the lyric just tarnishes the song. We hope that the McCain campaign will do the right thing and stop using our song — and start asking artists’ permission in general.”
Okay. John McCain’s music programming people? Even if you can’t figure out how to get permission for the songs you use, you could at least do a Google and doublecheck an artist’s political leanings, or his past response to having his songs appropriated by your party:
Were you crushed after the election?
Fuck, yes. I wanted to riot. But rather than write an angry Rage Against the Machine record, I wanted to give a sense of hope and release and faith. One of the reasons I did that with the Kerry campaign was because I was personally offended that George Bush was using [the Foo Fighters'] “Times Like These” at his campaign rallies. We were trying to think of a way to get him to stop. “Fuck, man, I’m gonna send the president a cease and desist order.”
Think this’ll be enough to get Grohl to revive his own political aspirations?
*I’m not saying I would pick “Cold Hearted Snake” as the theme song for Ruined Music. For one thing, it reminds me too much of junior high dances.]]>
At this same time I was developing a hopeless crush on a good friend. In the interest of saving him from embarrassment, I’ll call him Jordan. We had been best buddies way back in our preschool days, but because he ended up a grade ahead of me and went to a different school, we grew apart.
This impossible infatuation began when I was in eleventh grade. Overachiever that I was, I enrolled in his Math 12 and Physics 12 classes. I took every opportunity that I could to start conversations about the laws of momentum and logarithms with him.
After he graduated, we only interacted through email and the internet; on rare occasions we saw each other on an afternoon since I worked with his mom. In February, I got up the nerve to ask him to be my date for prom. At first he said no, but being persistent, I asked him again, eventually convincing him to go with me.
By the time prom arrived and I was incredibly nervous. The afternoon began with him arriving too early and me running past the bay of windows, where he had parked, in a housecoat. Never before had I managed to zip myself into a dress so fast; thank goodness my hair and makeup were already done.
I casually walked out of the bedroom looking elegant, only to find Jordan looking very anxious indeed. After polite introductions to my family, an hour of photos, and starting out the door before he realized he had forgotten to give me my corsage, we headed to the arena where my school’s prom was being held. We quickly found a spot in the forming line and he proceeded to stuff his face with Timbits. That was when I decided my prom wasn’t going to be the perfect, romantic night I had hoped it would be. I didn’t have feelings for Jordan any more, but he was still my date for the night.
When the dance began that evening, I headed off to an available table and tried to avoid the inevitable, but Jordan found me. Dancing our first awkward song together simply confirmed the fact that we were just friends. He only felt comfortable dancing the slow songs with me, so a couple of times I slipped off to dance with other guys in my class.
Midnight came, that magical hour when the princess is supposed to run off and leave behind a glass slipper. As for me, we were only six songs into the night, and I wished I could leave my sore, stepped-on feet behind.
As the night dragged on, Jordan got up more and more courage to dance with me. When another slow song came to an end, I went to take my leave – and that’s when the opening notes of “Our Song” began to play. Jordan didn’t let go of me. To my surprise, he couldn’t follow the beat, even though he was a drummer. I found myself cringing as he tried to dance. My favourite song was being ruined by sweaty palms and a kind of awkward jig. Jordan’s feet must have been stuck to the ground because neither my feet nor my dress got stepped on; we both remained rooted in the same spot for the entire song. My date looked like he was on a pogo stick, and if that wasn’t bad enough he was simultaneously swaying back and forth, both to a completely different rhythm from each other and the song. I tried to focus on the music, but he stared down at me with those big eyes and a nervous smile.
I recognized that look.
On the night that I realized I had no feelings for Jordan, he decided he had feelings for me; it all happened during “Our Song,” in the midst of some, might I say, daring dance moves.
I no longer get all dreamy-eyed at Taylor Swift’s catchy lyrics. Instead I can’t help but laugh, the embarrassed, gut-wrenching chuckle I wanted to let out during that unforgettable dance.]]>
If you want to win, tell us the one song that would make you fall for someone you’d never met – if he or she put it on a mix CD. (If that’s not a setup for a Ruined Music story, I don’t know what is, but in the movies you get happier endings.)
Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line NICK & NORAH by Tuesday, Oct. 7. Don’t forget to include your mailing address! We’ll draw two winners at random.]]>
The irony is, I never set foot inside the bar. It wasn’t until I got what I wanted that I understood how much I didn’t want it.
The first night in our new apartment, I realized how badly I’d messed up. We sat on the floor in the living room as the blue neon of the sign with the typographical error filled the room with mournful light. We ate Taco Bell and drank beer and watched TV and wondered how we’d ended up where we’d ended up.
It was then that the soundtrack to the next two years of our lives began. Of course, I didn’t realize the significance of the moment until much later, but as I ate my bean burrito and watched television, the future began to unfold.
I’d never even heard “Ripple” before that moment. That guitar riff stuck in my head immediately. Bah da da dah. I was Pavlov’s dog, and someone in the bar downstairs kept ringing the bell, over and over and over again. For two years, they rang that goddamned bell, until they nearly drove me insane.
The people in the bar loved that song. Sometimes they would play it twenty or thirty times in a single night. Occasionally, drunk voices would filter through the cheap carpeting too, and they’d sing me to sleep.
Of course, I never really did sleep. For two years, I didn’t sleep. It got to the point where I refused to go to bed before two a.m., regardless of how early I needed to be awake for work. But even though the bar locked its doors at two, the party always went into the wee hours. I’d often sit in my bed at four or five in the morning, my eyes pleading for darkness as the sun began to shine through my bedroom window. The song would end, and a minute or two would pass, and I would close my eyes in a fit of optimism. Then, just as sleep crept into my room and laid her hand on my pillow, those four notes would jerk me back from the brink. Bah da da dah.
The Grateful Dead wasn’t the only band this bar played. Sometimes they went with Fleetwood Mac, and on rare occasions, “All I Want Is You” would creep through the floorboards. But time and time again, those same four notes drifted up into my room with the stale cigarette smoke and the drunken laughter. Bah da da dah.
I did everything to that song. I cooked dinner and drank gin to that song. I made new friends and lost a few old ones as that song played in the background. I fucked and I fought and I forgave, all to the sound of those four notes. I could never hear the words, so that simple little melody was the bond that held it all together. Bah da da dah. Eventually I gave up. It was time to move.
I live in a different city now, one where heroin addicts and sirens and gunshots are the sounds that shatter the night. I’ve learned to filter out those sounds, though. I don’t hear the cars stopping to pick up the neighborhood whores, and I don’t hear the corner boys selling their sweetness to the hundreds of customers who make up the population of my horribly addicted city. I don’t hear the drunks leaving the bars, and I don’t hear the helicopters circling overhead. I still don’t sleep right, but at least I don’t hear.
Last night a car drove by. The stereo was loud enough to cut through the brick wall of my little rowhouse. Whatever song was playing had four notes that followed a certain rhythm. Bah da da dah. I jerked up in my bed, wide awake, looking for the blue neon typo that lit up my room ten years ago. It took a long time before I realized where I was, and where I wasn’t.
The little dog who sleeps in my bed snuggled up against me and immediately fell back to sleep. I lay there for at least an hour, my eyes wide open, my muscles rigid against the soothing autumn air. The song never came, but I couldn’t sleep. I sat in the dark and waited.]]>
1. Eternity – Lionel Richie
2. Signed Sealed Delivered – Stevie Wonder
3. Waiting On The World To Change – John Mayer
4. American Prayer – Dave Stewart
5. Battle Cry – Shontelle
6. Make It Better – Los Lonely Boys
7. Pride In The Name Of Love – John Legend
8. I Have A Dream – BeBe Winans
9. Am I All Alone – Suai
10. One Is The Magic # – Jill Scott
11. Love & Hope – Ozomatli
12. Looking East – Jackson Browne
13. Out of Our heads – Sheryl Crow
14. Promised Land – Malik Yusef with Kanye West and Adam Levine of Maroon 5
15. Hold On – Yolanda Adams
16. America The Beautiful – Keb’ Mo’
17. America – Ken Stacey
18. Wide River – Buddy Miller
I don’t have confirmation yet, but I’m pretty sure the John McCain mix CD – which should be coming out any day now – will look something like this:
1. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
2. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
3. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
4. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
5. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
6. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
7. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
8. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
9. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
10. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
11. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
12. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
13. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
14. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
15. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
16. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
17. Raisin’ McCain – John Rich
18. She’s A Hottie – Toby Keith