90 Miles Out of Atlanta #6: Kurt Vile & Fleetwood Mac
90 Miles Out of Atlanta is a column by a man trying to recreate the world of his childhood with vinyl. His address is Woodall Hall 124, 4225 University Avenue, Columbus, Georgia 31907. He shows up here every Friday.
Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Last December, Spin posted a short article about Kurt Vile’s upcoming album in which he said, “It’s totally our Tusk, but no cheese. Just rock.” Those words went up, people cut them and pasted them onto other sites, and by the time the record came out they had become universal truth: Wakin On A Pretty Daze is the new Tusk. Vile understood the ridiculousness of this, and in an interview with Stereogum he said: “I say different things at different times about this record — for instance I recently said it was my Tusk and everyone was like, ‘So this is Tusk!?’ So I feel like everybody takes every comment so literally. It just means I got a little more experimental this time. It’s definitely its own thing.”
I took Vile on his word, so “totally our Tusk, but no cheese” hung over my listening experience and confounded me.
I love Kurt Vile. I own all his records going back to the earliest 45s. I’ll drive many hours to see him in concert. I preordered Wakin on a Pretty Daze so I could get the blue vinyl and the sheet of stickers to customize the cover. When my fellow professors come over to drink and smoke and listen to music, it’s one of the first records I put on, because I know they’ll dig it and they’ll think I’m cool for having turned them on to it. I’m a fan, a big fan. But someone has to call him out about this Tusk business, and that someone is me.
Fleetwood Mac, Tusk
Allie is out of town this week, so it’s a rare opportunity to listen to music she hates at high volume for hours and days on end. But I keep listening to Fleetwood Mac, just like I would have if she were still around. I’d been so looking forward to being alone. But now that I am, I feel lonely. On one rainy day stretch I’ll play side four of Tusk more than twenty times in a row.
It’s only recently that I’ve gotten into Tusk. When it came out, I was eleven, and it disappointed me. My mom was just about to divorce my third dad, Dan. They’d been together since I was three, and all through my childhood Fleetwood Mac played in our house — Penguin, the self-titled LP, Rumours. That’s the one that hooked me, Rumours. I had a little record player with built-in speakers, and Rumours was always on it. Every song was just right, especially “Songbird”. My childhood wasn’t an easy one. In addition to the divorces, my dads would sometimes smack me hard across the face without warning just because I was being a weird hyper little kid. My mom would fly into rages and say terrible things to me. At school I was an outcast. But still there were moments when life was beautiful and I felt loved. My mom would pat the couch cushion beside her and I’d climb up and spoon into her and she’d pet my hair. That’s how “Songbird” feels when Christine McVie sings: “I feel that when I’m with you, it’s alright, I know it’s right.”
Rumours wasn’t just a big hit, it was a cultural phenomenon. They ran commercials for it during primetime. Tusk came two and a half years later, on a high wave of expectations. It was said to be the most expensive record ever made. To my young ears it sounded strange and unfocused, and I only listened to it a couple of times before I drifted into new wave and punk and the very idea of Fleetwood Mac became an affront. Those were my angry years. I did like the title track, I guess; it had a driving beat and the “ooga wogga ooga” part was funny and cool. But it wasn’t until I bought the album for six bucks at Wax ‘n’ Facts last summer that I realized what a monumentally freaky top ten hit that song is. I wonder what Casey Casem said about it back then. I imagine walking into a nightclub with a head full of coke and weed and Cutty Sark and hearing that song come on and thinking that the 80’s are right around the corner and they’re going to be great. Of course, they weren’t.
Listening to Tusk again as a man in my forties I find that the very thing that turned me off as a kid, the all-over-the-placeness of it, turns me on as an adult. It starts so slow with “Over & Over” by McVie and then goes fast and spastic with Lindsey Buckingham’s “The Ledge.” It’s like that across all four sides, like schizophrenia pressed in wax, and it’s a miracle the album got made at all, because all the members of the band had been in the thralls of a five-way divorce for years, since before Rumours even went into pre-production. And on this record they had a million-dollar budget, to kill themselves with. And this is where we begin to see how Vile’s words were intended. He’s relatively sober, happily married, faithful, a father, by all appearances a good one, devoted, loving. He works with budgets far below the lethal level. All the eyes and the ears of the world are not on him. He might be a genius, but he’s only one. Fleetwood Mac was at least three geniuses, most likely five. Wakin On A Pretty Daze is a wonderful record, but I’ve never listened to any side on it more than twenty times in a row. And Kurt, what cheese?
(And while we’re at it, fuck Fleetwood Mac, or at least the Fleetwood Mac that’s on tour right now. Without Christine McVie they are not all that they really were. Everyone talks about how Lindsey Buckingham was the mega-brain of the group, the super artist, and I agree, but McVie was the transcendence, the super human, the love in a world of misery. I’ve deleted dozens of sentences in which I’ve tried to describe her voice, her sense of the pop song, because her voice and song sense are too deep and true to describe. The best I can come up with is the mom thing I mentioned earlier, the bit about life’s OK when I’m with you, and I really am loved. When she sings, souls warm. There’s a reason they opened and closed Tusk with her songs, and did the same with side four, the best side: because no other songs on the album come close. Yes, I like “Tusk” and “Walk a Thin Line” and “Beautiful Child”, but it’s “Honey Hi” and “Never Forget” that made me listen more than twenty times in a row.)
Allie is gone and I’m listening to Fleetwood Mac and drinking a lot. It occurrs to me that with my new vintage stereo and my 70s-heavy record collection I’m recreating the world of my childhood. I ask my mom how to get in touch with Dan and I send him an email. After he and mom divorced I spoke with him once, a brief and awkward phone call. My mom told me not to expect much, and she was right. At least she still loves me, but she’s far away, and so is Allie, and as always I’m here with the music, as if that’s where I’ll find whatever it is I’m trying to find. I want to play side four one more time.