for the love of a girl in black
Inherently, The Pleasures Pale was a band for misfits. Whether consciously or simply in the course of our individual habits and collective ways, we made music for outsiders. This was never stated as strategy; we didn't discuss it or diagram on a white board. Unless it was in the negative when Jeff Keating suggested I grow my hair long to look more like Micheal Stipe than Morrissey. Nonetheless, and whether Keating bought in, or even recognized it, this was our raison d'être — to champion the socially challenged, to find cool in the uncool, to warp the context of what was hip.
And if we were a band for misfits, our place in the mid-1980s musical landscape was also misfit. In the developing genres and sub-genres within second wave punk, and college radio rock, we didn't fit in. No, even in the indie/alt scene, supposedly a refuge for outcasts, we hung on the margins and dreamed our anthems for the marginalized. If success in an American indie band's typically short life is determined by alignment with their era's zeitgeist, we were, predictably, aiming at targets others either didn't see, or didn't see as clearly as we did. Those are the vagaries of history, determining who gets written in and who doesn't.
I suppose it's telling that Louie Lerma and I shared a fondness for the films of Jerry Lewis. Beneath the ridiculous slapstick and pathos of Lewis's seemingly endless string of similarly rendered characters — seemingly aired weekly on late night TV in the 80s — was a subversive attack on normalcy. Yeah, I know, to see it you have to WANT to see it. But, oh, it was there. Personally, I don't think America ever did or ever will fully get the joke.
The Pleasures Pale wrote and performed dozens and dozens of songs. Among the legion, one was perhaps most emblematic of our "misfittedness." "If It Wasn't So Funny" was built on a swing-time beat and a double-time chorus, both oddities in an indie rock song. If you wanted airplay at the left end of the FM dial in the 80s, this was not the song you would write. But then Keating loved swing beats, and Lerma and (Mitch) Swann had no problem churning out hooky riffs regardless of time signature or style. For example, listen to "How I Dreamt of You" on Daily Living or "But She Didn't" on the LP. Bottom line, we embraced "If It Wasn't So Funny" as if it were our own clumsy but well intentioned child.
Lyrically, "IIWSF" pointed an accusatory finger at advertising and mass media for what could be termed "the commodification of desire" and, in particular, the non-stop selling of idealized sexual desire. With a steady diet of seductive imagery, we're driven to consume. Addicted to the purchase thrill, we buy and buy but never reach satisfaction. I think Jagger and Richards did OK with a song addressing the same topic two decades prior.
The song, in principle, doesn't necessarily pitch a fit about using sex to sell products, but bemoans the selling of a normalized idea of desire. One that ultimately makes sex an effective tool in marketing everything from toothpaste to automobiles, and in so doing dumbs down the whole population. In other words, the song wants to get at why most anything can be sold with sex. And, more so, it wants to claim victory in seeing through the ruse, even if it means being excluded from the marketplace. But in the end, it also admits to helplessness in the presence of such primal bait. In all, "If It Wasn't So Funny" was an interesting, if oblique, commentary wrapped in a quirky, neurotic musical package — precisely the kind of song destined for the now mountain-sized scrap heap of discarded pop songs.
But "IIWSF" is also the kind of song that's challenging enough and out-of-genre enough that it's impossible to completely extinguish. Throw it on the burn pile and it smolders forever.
Cut to 1980...
All songs arrive on a path. And there is always a trail back to inception points. Some are written with fully conscious and specific intent. While others come slithering from dark recesses of the subconscious; in essence, they write themselves. "If It Wasn't So Funny" was the latter. I didn't write the words so much as they just appeared on paper.
But with hindsight comes clarity. I can now connect the dots to a singular influential experience: a night in Ann Arbor in a club near the U of M campus. it was "New Wave" night, or a similarly billed DJ night. The venue was a disco, a dance club coopted and repurposed on a weeknight to give those of us dying for some place, any place, to go hear new, "alternative" music. The room was fairly spacious with a too-big dance floor. The turn out was sparse, a small gathering really. But each attendee, I noticed, had that blasé, in-the-know look, and had dressed the part.
The scene was thrilling and intimidating, a subterranean fantasy. Here was the underground cognoscenti. Ultra-cool figures leaned on every rail and in every dark corner. One black-clad woman, sleek and beat, somewhat older than most in the room, stood alone against a bare wall, all concentrated ennui, high cheekbones and severe hair. She was "in," but apart; "there," but above it. She was a bohemian vision representing a way out of middle American trappings, an exit from the small town dullness that can rot a young overactive imagination. I was attracted and, during a break in the music, approached. A moth saw a flame and flew straight to it. Nature must have its way...
"What do you think of the music?" I asked.
The degree of disgust and the swiftness with which I was dismissed would be impossible to exaggerate. Queen Underground shifted her eyes in my direction and sneered in contempt — a complete, devastating, will-shriveling sneer — then redirected her gaze toward the middle of room, fixed on nothing in particular.
I shrugged in defense and veered toward the bar, burning and crumbling inside. The exchange lasted less than a few seconds. Nothing unusual, really — simply another incidence of social sorting in the unfathomably vast history of human interaction. If I weren't mining for the genesis of a song, it would hardly be worth mention.
But the incident was a kind of watershed: In that brief exchange I understood my view would forever be from the outside, always looking in, always craving. It was a defining moment. One that erects the pillars and beams of a personality. One that molds a psyche, for better or for worse.
Cut to 1985...
After a time "If It Wasn't So Funny" dropped from the set list, replaced by new, higher performing models. But not before I could convince the band we needed to feature our weird little song in a music video. We set up in the house on Marcella Avenue, turned on the camera and pantomimed to a sketchy 4-track recording. We coerced Lerma's brother Terry Lerma to act out a rough script in the house and in a few downtown Dayton locations. By pointing the camera at a TV screen while the film played on VHS tape, I filched some scenes of James Dean, Richard Davalos and Julie Harris from "East of Eden." I had access to a video editing machine and haphazardly arranged the collected footage into a form with a beginning and end. By definition, we had a music video.
The result was far less than stellar. In fact, it was amateurish and awful. I may have distributed a few copies, but if I did, I'm sure those copies did more harm than good to our career intentions. So much for entering the MTV race.
Cut to the present...
A couple of years back, sifting through my storage locker, I uncovered a copy of our experiment in videomaking and set it aside. Eventually, I secured a VHS player, popped in the tape and let it roll... Video and audio fidelity were worse than I expected — remember when VHS quality was "good enough?" — and the content was mostly as flinch-inducing as I remembered.
But 30 years distance does have a filtering effect. I found portions of it watchable and even mildly entertaining. So, well, why not... After resurrecting and fleshing out the song with a glam vaudevillian swagger, it seemed only fitting that, like a bumbling but unkillable film protagonist, the video footage should (in part) resurface in a re-envisioned form. After all, there will always be a few misfits on the margins ready and willing to cheer a good poke in the eye — even if the girl in black and all she represents remains firmly and achingly out of reach.