Better than Good?

Well, maybe I’ll call or write you a letter.
Now, maybe we’ll see on the Fourth of July.
But I’m not too sure, and I’m not too proud.

Listen...

Sometimes songs stick to a moment in time and every time you hear them you pull a Billy Pilgrim (Bam! You’re unstuck in time). More often than not, for me, when a song exerts a strong enough gravity it pulls in divergent directions.

Songs that do this don’t have to be ‘great’; shit, I don’t even have to like songs all that much to begin with for them to become anchors or bookmarks in time. One example is “Good” by Better than Ezra.

(Side Note 1: I had the fortune (from my perspective) of becoming friends with someone named Ezra soon after Better than Ezra’s popularity had peaked. He single-mindedly abhorred the band. But, then again, he professed undying affection for Semisonic and spent most of his free time copying Pearl Jam bootlegs. Needless to say, I used the phrase “better than Ezra” around him whenever humanly possible. Yes, I am that charming.)

Now, Better than Ezra was/is a quintessential bubble band from the mid.-late 90’s. I call it a ‘bubble’ band, because like tech stocks at the end of the millennium and housing prices in Nevada five years ago, the band’s ‘value’ was artificially inflated by the time—a period during which producers, labels and djs were all in search of the next big band, all desperate to make money off of the unheralded talent, the diamonds in the rough.

(Side Note 2: I actually saw Better than Ezra live in 1997—after their zenith, but close enough that they could still pack a room. Their live show overflows with energy. For a band that really only has one song (re-written a few times) they made the most of it. If I ever make a list of bands whose live shows made me totally reconsider them, Better than Ezra will be there. Some recordings of their live shows show this energy—I’d tell you to go to Limewire, but…)

Better Than Ezra’s first single, “Good” is at once everything a pop song should be and well reflects the musical aesthetics of the period. It is derivative, but it is also memorable and just different enough to stand out. At just over three minutes, it starts out loud with some distortion on the guitars, then, as any good post-“Smells like Teen Spirit” anthem had to, it breaks down to the bass-line for two measures until the vocalist comes in.

The vocals are simple, repetitive and evocative—the narrative is about a relationship that has ended. The crescendo to the chorus is measured. When the second verse returns, an electric guitar riff is tastefully introduced, the vocal is put through some effect. All the prettiness of the first part of the song is put slightly off with a somewhat chaotic musical break before the chorus is repeated again. Then, a fade-out repetition of the chorus.

What makes the song work, what makes it possible for me still to like it despite its near robotic use of the alt-rock template, is the way the simple chorus (“wa-ha, it was good living with you, wa-ha, it was good”) is stretched out until it almost feels profound. The effort put into each “wa-ha” makes it seem like an unspoken assertion to the truth of the statement. The repetition of “good” is not only not redundant but it equally functions as an overwhelming insistence on the fact. Each iteration of “good” adds meaning to the original assertion, thus allowing the emotion of the sound to suffuse and transform it. Perhaps the narrator protests too much; perhaps it really was that good.

If we dispel the idea that the band just couldn’t think of anything better, the near speechlessness of the speaker, his inability to articulate anything more than “that was good” represents a nice attempt to express the ineffable. Rather than being angry like Alanis Morrisette or catty like Rivers Cuomo, the narrator of this song is remorseful, but thankful. The chorus evokes a recognition of what is lost that places no blame but merely exists to memorialize what was good.

(Side Note 3: A former girlfriend—the Mix Tape Girl—pretended that she was sure that the chorus was “It was good living with your mom”; the first time I heard her say this it was funny. Soon after, it stopped being funny. Now, when I hear the song, it is merely part of the world the song recalls.)

Somehow, this song’s attempt to memorialize someone else’s loss has adhered to a moment in my past. I started out writing this not to talk about the song but to talk about the moment I first heard it.

My sexy ride

I am driving a Ford LTD station wagon to a high school graduation, but not my own. My best friend, the aforementioned Lead Singer, is shoving a tape into the radio, insisting that I seriously consider this song. As I did when he first pushed Green Day on me or when he insists that Dishwalla is truly an emerging juggernaut, I humor him dismissively. We listen to ‘Good’ four or five times.


We are driving together because he was recently in a terrible car accident. On (or near) his 17th birthday, his father gave him a 1965 Buick Wildcat. A thoroughly gorgeous car. A dream of a machine. Its engine alone was larger than my current car. We fit a dozen people in it. It was silver and white.  It oozed sex. And, unfortunately, drugs.

A man's car

Two weeks later, the Lead Singer ran a stopsign driving 60 miles an hour and was broad-sided by a large pick-up truck. The sheer size of the automobile prevented anyone from suffering serious physical injury. No one, however, gets over an accident that easily. No one can recover from the loss of such a car. No one then who was in the car could explain why the Lead Singer ran that stop sign.

This accident was one of many signals that my best friend was not doing well, that life and growing up were taking large tolls. It was also one of many moments when I failed him. I was not very sympathetic. I had been jealous of the car and the attention. When I got the call that he was at the hospital, I didn’t go. I never tried to console him. I was silent, aloof, and, I fear, in some way satisfied. Our long friendship suffered one of its first breakings. And it was my fault.

When I hear the song ‘Good’, I respond to it not because I am similarly remorseful over a love lost. The song, while I can respect it, is not great, but it brings me back to that car ride. When I hear the bass-line, I see the tape popping in the radio, I see the streets passing me by and I know now that I was not paying attention to where I was driving. I could have been headed anywhere, but I was not in control.

Who was?

So the song, better than most, makes me unstuck in time. I feel remorse but for different reasons. And as I look at myself in the side-view mirror of a car that was so much less cool than a Buick Wildcat in that memory world, I don’t like who I see. But I also barely recognize him.

And you brother, are there any songs that tug you in so many different directions?

19 comments on “Better than Good?

  1. kate58 says:

    I’ve been time-trippin’ off music all weekend…. 🙂

    • theelderj says:

      What songs take you back, ms. kate88? (and thanks for reading!)

      • kate58 says:

        Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”.
        Phoebe Snow’s “Cash In”.
        Steely Dan’s “Glamour Profession”.
        Chuck Mangioone’s “Feel So Good”.
        Faze-O’s “Ridin’ High”.
        Alex Harvey’s “Gang Bang”.
        Chick Corea’s “Where Have I Loved You Before”.

        Dude, don’t get me started, LOL!

  2. Maybe MTG knew that you were annoyed by that and, like your needling of Ezra, she was amused by your irritation?

    • theelderj says:

      That sounds completely reasonable and not at all that annoying.

      (sorry if the annoyance in the memory seemed outsized, the younger elder j was easily annoyed and, in my senior years, I try to keep to some semblance of truth)

    • theelderj says:

      Another great MTG take-down of a song? Oasis’ “champagne super nova” was transformed into a ditty about a chevy nova. As I remember, this greatly improved the quality of the song.

  3. professormortis says:

    Not only did that take me back to my college years, it finally solved the mystery of who sang that song and who the hell Better Than Ezra were. I knew the name, but never connected it with the song.

    I guess I should feel better about being out of touch now, since I was so out of touch then.

  4. theelderj says:

    Professor: unless you were likely to catch the band live, you didn’t miss too much. (Although, their song “Rosalia” isn’t half bad.)

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