The year was 1997, or 1998, or 1999. It was certainly pre-millennium, but definitely post-Green Day’s Dookie changing everything for me like Nirvana’s Nevermind changed everything for so many other people a few years prior.
I was at my local Hollywood Video in Rockford, Illinois—probably trying to figure out how to rent an R-rated, straight-to-VHS Anna Nicole Smith movie or something similar—when I came across a bin full of brand new CDs for only $3.99. Why the hell Hollywood Video was carrying clearance CDs in 1998, I’ll never know—but being young, eager, and having a five-spot in my pocket, I dove in and looked for anything I might recognize. To describe the pickings as slim wouldn’t be exaggerating.
Suddenly: Score! I find something I kind of know, I think. The band is called the Smoking Popes. Sounds pretty cool. I think I heard someone talk about them at the record store across the street before. The album is called Destination Failure. Depressing title! I wonder if this is emo? I’m pretty sure I like emo — a friend made me a mixtape of bands like Braid, Jejune and the Get Up Kids, and I really dug it, so I think this is my thing now. There’s even a song on this album called “Pretty Pathetic.” I bet that one’s gonna be real sad. Should I skip ahead to track 15? No, that’s no good, so let’s move on… to the first track.[Fire up the Spotify playlist below for the full sensory experience]
Suddenly becoming completely undone
“Star Struck One”
Tapped me on the shoulder
And whispered in my ear:
“Don’t be a pussy all your life”
What the hell? What the hell? Within its first two minutes, this random album—by a band I was vaguely familiar with but had never heard before—spoke to me intensely. Who is this guy crooning to me? How do these drums sound so damn good? Let’s crack open the liner notes. “Produced and mixed by Jerry Finn.” I know that name from my Green Day and Rancid CDs. Okay, so this band is punk after all. Cool.
Whoa, I know you love me
“I Know You Love Me”
This world is freezing cold,
I long for you to hold
Me in your arms
What the hell? What the hell? I’m only on track three, and I’m already getting shivers. How is this album real? Who is this band? This record is already emotionally exhausting. The girl who inspired this song must be the greatest girl in the world. (Thanks to the Popes’ live album on Double Zero Records, I later learned that this song is not about a girl.)
I drove all the way from Carpentersville
“You Spoke to Me”
I don’t know
If you actually saved my life
But you changed it, that’s for sure
What the hell? What the hell? Who wrote these lyrics, and at what point in the past year or so did he sneak into my bedroom at night and drill into my brain to steal my thoughts? The liner notes say “All songs written by Josh Caterer.” I’m guessing that’s the singer.
I’ll have to fire up the ol’ 28.8 kbps modem when I get home and see what I can find via an Alta Vista search. Hopefully Mom and Dad don’t need to use the phone line. They even list an email address in the liner notes: [email protected] I should send them a message. (Sadly, I don’t think I emailed them.)
Bottoms down, and out of reasons to hang around
I know one guy named Paul; he plays bass in an emo-violence band called Uniform Pants. I’ll have to show him this song.
She’ll say, “I love you Paul”
What the hell. What the hell. How is a chorus so lyrically simple sound so absolutely damn massive? Why is this album in the cut-out bin? How is this song not on the radio every single minute of every single day?
Waited for a train to take me back to you
Butter on a summer day
When she’s around
I was on the tracks
hen the gate came down
Suddenly I recognized
Those bloodshot rearviewmirror eyes as mine
I heard that whistle call my name
I almost drove away
But Megan, I had a feeling
That you would be on that train
So I just waited there for you
What the hell? What the hell? Is this a love song about someone getting hit by a train? Is it a metaphor? Is Megan a real person? Man, if I have to go to the library and dig through rolls of microfiche to get to the bottom of this, I will. This song is absolutely beautiful and devastating at the same time. (It still is.)
What we’ll see will defy explanation
What the hell? What the hell? Is this a cover of that song from Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory? That was a tight movie. I love Roald Dahl books, too. What a weird, random cover to include in the middle of an album. Shouldn’t this be a hidden track, like what other punk bands do on their albums? Whatever, it sounds great, I don’t care.
A love as strong as ours
doesn’t just go away
I miss what we had,
I need you so badly
What the hell? What the hell? This line has fully shaken me to my core. I rewind to hear it a second time. Holy shit. This speaks to me. This speaks to me. (Eventually, I’ll realize that lyric is the song’s punchline, not its emotional crescendo. It will take me far longer than I care to admit to have this out.)
If at first it seems as though I’m not around
“Follow the Sound”
If we hold on to each other
While we die
Through the heavens we will fly
What the hell? What the hell? This is the first damn line of the song. I’ve never, ever seen themes of love and death so beautifully intertwined since reading Romeo & Juliet in freshman year English class. This Josh Caterer dude is a real poet.
Oh no, the album’s over?! Better press play again, and keep it on repeat. I have a feeling this might stay in my Discman for a few weeks.
So Josh, Eli, Matt, Mike (and Neil, Dave, Ryan, and Rob): two decades have passed, and I’m still listening to you. I’m still listening to Destination Failure, I’m still listening to your major label breakthrough Born To Quit (bought a promo copy on eBay for a few pennies, and I still think the cover art is the best-worst thing ever—or maybe the worst-best thing ever), I’m still listening to your raw debut album Get Fired (found it at my local Goodwill for a buck—what a steal!), I’m still listening to your criminally underexposed 2005 comeback powerhouse Stay Down (grabbed a copy on CD at Amoeba during one of my trips out west, and I’d die to have it on vinyl some day), I’m still listening to your most recent album, 2011’s This is Only A Test (pre-ordered from Asian Man Records along with a sky-blue Popes tee with a wiener dog on it), I’m still listening to both of your live albums (I was in the audience for At Metro!) [I was in the audience for Live in ’98! -RiotFest.org Editor], and I’m still listening to The Party’s Over (because who doesn’t want to hear Josh Caterer sing showtunes?). And I will listen to whatever your politically-charged, return-to-form new album is going to be called when it comes out later this year, ad nauseum.
Thank you, Smoking Popes. You spoke to me, yeah!