I know it looks like hell, we’re putting up the seasonal theme, which I hereby kick off with a tribute to what’s been my favorite Halloween song for half my life and holding.
I assume you may or may not be familiar with it and am sorry I can’t find it on U-Tube, MP3 or whatnot but here’s 29 seconds worth and an even better 32 second clip from Amazon, scroll on down to Halloween.
I found a blog by an ordinary guy who hates rock journalism but found himself unable to contain his praise and that sounds about right, and I’m not saying all this just because I french-kissed Steve Wynn when I was a gypsy girl but full disclosure, it’s that kinda song–majestic, swirly, disinhibiting, sounds alot like this:
…To paraphrase Keith Richards (and don’t ask me for the citation) rock and roll should affect you in the crotch. Does that mean that writing about it becomes a kind of literary pornography (always a poor substitute for the real thing)? Sometimes, it appears, a song affects you with tone and melody. Sometimes it is the lyrics, matched with a set of notes that achieve perfect pitch. Sometimes it is the way a song makes you think about your place in the world.
…I write all this because I’ve been listening to Dream Syndicate’s “Halloween” a couple times a day since I promised to write about it, trying to figure out how to describe what the song does to me. The song is supposedly a paean to the Hollywood slasher film and, especially, its hallmark star of the 70s and 80s, Jamie Lee Curtis. But I don’t really care for those movies. In fact, I haven’t even seen them. So while I like some of the lines in the song (“Two steps forward/ Don’t say I didn’t warn you/ Two steps forward/ Oh, I didn’t warn you!”), and while I like Steve Wynn’s rendition of them, the lyrics aren’t it. I love the album this song is on, The Days of Wine and Roses, but, to be honest, I never really liked anything else they did (and I was shocked to see internet critics ranking their other albums higher; what are they, otters?). And I know enough of the story of this band after their time together to enjoy its place in a history of post-punk (hypnotic and disonant lead guitarist, Karl Precoda, goes to graduate school and winds up as a professor in the department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Tech; bassist Kendra Smith splits after the first album to join up with the guitarist of The Rain Parade to form one of my favorite drool bands, Opal, which itself sheds Smith and morphs into Mazzy Star; singer-songwriter-guitarist Steve Wynn goes on to a solo career, the first album of which I quite like). But while the historian in me likes the complexifying networks that radiate out from this 1982 album, none of this stuff occurs to me when I listen to my favorite track, Halloween.
No, this one is purely visceral and that’s why it is so hard to explain. Let’s start with the guitars. … the conversation between Wynn’s melodiously throbbing rhythm guitar (forming a perfect trio with Smith’s bass line and Donald Duck’s—yes!—drumbeat) and Precoda’s careening, screeching, growling roller coaster lead. Together they produce a musical form that turns me into a body that is simply ears, hips and feet. I’m enthralled with every listen to the way I oscillate between attention to Wynn’s rhythm on the one hand and Precoda’s wildly pulsating and wandering guitar solo (solo in the sense that it floats throughout and above the other instruments in a way that demands our attention) within an utter wall of crescendo-ing sound.
I saw them play once, sophomore year, either in the fall of 1982 or the winter/spring of 1983 in Minneapolis. It was the loudest show I’d ever heard (to this day). One of the folks who went with me complained afterwards that it was too loud for him. It was certainly loud enough that he was unable to hear me screaming to them, in all sincerity, as they played Halloween toward the end of their set, “Louder! My ears aren’t bleeding yet!” There may well have been long-term damage to my ears from that show, but they produced one of the best walls of sound I’ve ever encountered, a wall that claimed every cell in my body, textured with individual instruments occasionally reaching out, like that wall of hands in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, threatening to pull us through that supposedly solid wall.
Ultimately, Halloween—Dream Syndicate at its best, for me—is about texture. In this wonderful song, they create a texture that not only wraps and vibrates my body, but also penetrates to the center of my simpleton’s skull. Like all matters of the body, you either like it or you don’t. No point trying to convert anyone else.
Ever since seeing them live, I reach for the volume control when I play the song. My woofers won’t replicate those of the monsters at 7th Avenue (the club where I saw them), especially when I’m listening on an iPod. But this is a song that shoves all other sounds aside for me. And that’s what love sounds like. I had a friend once who dismissed them immediately as Velvet Underground wannabes. Jesus-tap-dancing-Christ! Who cares about originality? I have loved this song for over 20 years. That’s good enough for me.