“Is this the f—ing Bumblebees song?” It was barely eight in the morning and Danger Girl was in no mood to hear No Return (Main Title Theme) (Single from “Yellowjackets Showtime Original Series Soundtrack”) cranked up in my increasingly raggedy Accord Coupe. (My street car, mind you; the race Accord is no more raggedy than it was when it won me a regional championship in 2018, and it will be returning to the track in 2022 so I can take a run at my local Super Touring U title.)
The “Yellowjackets” show is a bit of an acquired taste, but the theme song is a masterful thing indeed, consciously created for the show as a “lost track” from the grunge-poppy year of 1996 by fifty-something never-was punk rockers Anna Waronker and Craig Wedren. (That’s not fair, really; Anna is still forty-nine and holding up just as well as your evergreen author, who predates her by eight months.) Ms. Waronker and Mr. Wedren are also responsible for assembling the show’s overall soundtrack, and they do a subtly brilliant job of it. What did teen girls listen to in 1996? Judging by the facility with which my wife can instantly sing along with anything played on the show, it was this stuff.
Pitchfork has a deeper dive into the soundtrack, but I want to talk about one song in particular: “Gepetto”, released in 1993 by the four-person band Belly. Call me a teenaged girl if you like, but I was way into Belly and its fascinating frontwoman, Tanya Donelly, back in 1993, despite being a 21-year-old pin-and-plate-shooter with a chip on my shoulder and a permanent grudge against the world. The conventional wisdom is that Star, the first of the band’s two albums, is the better one; it sold over a million copies, pummeled MTV audiences with its lead single “Feed The Tree” several times a day, and made Tanya a quite controversial figure in the self-loathing, crabs-in-a-bucket pop-punk world.
As is often (but not always) the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. King, Tanya’s follow-up, sold just 350k copies despite a massive promo effort from the label, and most people aren’t even aware it exists, but it is brilliant. If the old tale about wearing out a CD by playing it so much the laser flattens the pits in the aluminum could be true, it would surely apply to my old King CD, bought on release day and played constantly for years afterwards.
That being said, I haven’t touched either Belly album in well over a decade. What did I hear when I returned to King after all this time? Uh, some really disturbing stuff.
The first Belly album was essentially a Tanya solo record; as with “Prince and the Revolution”, “The Virgins”, and many other well-known “bands”, the tunes were written and demoed by one person before being filled in on tour by hired guns. In fact, Star was originally meant to be the next album for Donelly’s “real” band, The Breeders. Short version of what happened: having been bullied out of the limelight by Kim Deal (in The Breeders) and Kristin Hersh (in Throwing Muses), Tanya decided she would go her own way, so to speak, and in doing so managed to easily out-sell and out-swagger both of her former partners.
(Another example of this unlikely occurrence: the three “unwanted” members of Eighties kiddie-novelty-R&B-act New Edition, having fired Bobby Brown for insane behavior and then being left for dead by Johnny Gill, the fellow whom they hired as Brown’s replacement but who immediately jumped ship again for a solo career, formed the band “Bell Biv Devoe” and went quadruple platinum with their debut.)
By the time they went into the studio for King, however, Belly was very much a band, with two sk8er-boi-looking brothers on drums and lead guitar plus the remarkable Gail Greenwood on bass. The record label paid to bring in the wickedly competent and quite famous Glyn Johns as; producer; he decided the album should be recorded live in the studio. As a consequence, it’s a hugely stripped-down affair, a bare-bones rock album made just as the industry was swinging towards highly-polished efforts from the likes of the Cranberries.
If you listen to it twenty-six years later, however, devoid of context, it sounds simply wonderful. King fairly crackles with energy from start to finish, kind of unnerving given that, you know, a major percentage of the album is about…
…pedophilia and molestation.
There’s no attempt to hide it. The first song, “Puberty”, is a terrified paean to being changed by forces outside your control, an unsentimental look at the sexualization process that turns children into adults:
I send a light to shine on you
I send a light to shine around you
I send a light to blind you
I am the light that shines on your eyes
I am the light that blinds
Next up is “Seal My Fate”, absolutely drenched with the hope of a teenaged girl to be with an older, more settled lover. “Red”, described by Donelly as a love song to aliens from the perspective of a young boy, goes something like this:
Mm mm come open mouth like Venus
Mm mm come over a mountain like Vesuvius
We’ve all been there, Tanya. “Silverfish” has never been explicitly addressed by the band but I hear the voice of a disaffected sex worker in it:
Silverfish line his pocket
Silver quick he leaves…
Hold his thin frame in your arms
When everything flows from his skin and his clothes
“Super-Connected” is a rant about a guru/savant/Rasputin boyfriend, but with “The Bees” we get into the meat of things:
My blessed son, you…
You’ve got a lot to learn
So I’m your best friend
You love me, and
Well I’ll tell you something:
“we’re on the road to messy.”
Now the bees behind my eyes sing “beware,”
But my bee-stung tongue wants in there
Beware, beware, beware of me…
I steal a piece of your diary
I don’t think that looks like me
Am I so cold, now that I’m older?
So come at me with mouth open wide
And i, like a jerk, I crawl inside
The title track, “King”, sits in the middle of the album, and now we’re past metaphors entirely, into the mind of a man who cannot stop grooming his own daughter for sex:
I won’t prey on you
I won’t prey on you this time
I’m your faith
I’m your faithhealer
I’m your faithless companion
I’m the seed that made your body perfect
When you sleep, I am awake
There is a light under the ocean
Under the ocean, there’s things shining everywhere
There is a lightkeeper under the blanket here
Under the blanket, there’s things shining everywhere
You light the ocean from behind
I’ll show you mine
I’ll show you
Baby, I can’t fake it
I’d like to see you naked
I’d like to see you take it
I’d like to see you naked
The rest of the record returns to conventionality, more or less, although “Untitled And Unsung” notes that
I want your pearly little hand in my hair
We make a strange and furious pair
I want you pearly on the inside
I know your heart
In interviews, Donelly states that her parents were bohemian sexual adventurers who made her childhood a whirlwind of “drugs and sexual stuff”, perhaps explaining some (or all) of the above. They divorced at seven, and her father married Kristen Hersh’s mother, inadvertently creating Throwing Muses and setting Tanya on a lifetime journey of music that continues today; though she has dropped in and out of music over the years and was rather famously just a bartender in the Pacific Northwest for years, Belly has officially re-formed and there’s a new album on Spotify.
A devoted and diligent mother, Donelly strives for normalcy in her day-to-day life. Her newer work is lovely enough but there’s nothing tortured or upset about it. Her voice doesn’t crack and shriek the way it used to, she doesn’t convey the same kind of desperate, deranged emotion. She is happy now.
Sometimes, as I contemplate the unalloyed joys of fatherhood, the relative stability of my oft-injured but essentially harmless current existence, and the innocent, almost childish, hopes I have for the final third of my life in rural surroundings, I wonder if perhaps the art of authorship is passing, or has passed, me clean by. I read the things I wrote thirty years ago and they seem so much more real, so much bloodier, so much more passionate, than what I create now. There was so much to say, so much angst struggling for the perfect expression, so much of that infamous emotion to recollect in tranquility. Now, at fifty, I can be annoyed but I am rarely angry; my interest may be piqued but I am rarely passionate. So often I find myself on the Malibu coast or in the heart of Tribeca or just at a new-car dealership, and the firstling of my heart is that old Socrates chestnut, “How many things there are here that I do not want!”
And yet. My brother recently retweeted this thread about how our exceptionally minor pandemic and a little bit of disconnection from society have combined to “totally break people”. I see evidence of this everywhere I look, but I don’t feel any of it. I spend essentially zero time worrying about all the things that, according to the media, should concern me. COVID-19? It can’t harm my son and I doubt it can do much to me. The plague of white supremacy sweeping the land, a greater tragedy than Pearl Harbor? Apparently I’m not white enough to get invited to the meetings. The existential threats to our democracy posed by the “insurrection” or “gerrymandering” or the filibuster? Compared to the Bonus Army or the various draft riots of the 19thC it all seems like pretty weak beer.
Some day soon I will have taken delivery of a truck and gotten the splint off my thumb and poured a concrete barn floor and put a brand-new Sparco F10C carbon-fiber steering wheel on my exhaustively refurbished Radical and I wonder if perhaps all off my angst will be gone. I will be nothing like the Tanya Donelly of 1995 and entirely like the placid Tanya of 2022. Or more appropriately, I’ll be like Garrison Keillor on the radio: an utterly unflappable presence of pure composure and willingness to be pleased. Free from all the drama and all the recently single mamas; focused on llamas. Or goats. I rather like the idea of ostriches, but I’m currently meeting a bit of resistance on that front. I could perhaps conquer it. Or I won’t. Either way it will be fine. That’s the news from Rancho Thunder Valley, where all the women are tall, all the men are barrel-shaped, and all the children are above-average airsofters.