My sister recently wrote about the possible resuscitation of her faded love for the band Guster. I really identify with the phenomenon of hearing old music anew through the experience of her child because I have watched my daughter and son learn to love music bit by bit and have had my sense of wonder and mystery reborn through them.
But I also identify with my sister’s confession of perplexity, that something she once loved so much is now so distant and strange. I think that the nostalgic fit of self-doubt that comes in such moments is in part a function of our own sense of aging and mortality. But there is something undeniably true about the band: their music has changed. But, then again, so have we.
And, in another serendipitous turn, my relationship with Guster follows a path not dissimilar to my sister’s. This is all also remarkable to mention because after well over a hundred blog posts I have never written exclusively about a band that was easily my favorite for five years or more. I mean, I mention the Pixies and They Might Be Giants every other day. Mates of State appear almost weekly and I was over 25 when I first heard the charming insanity of “Whiner’s Bio”.
So what happened? I aged, the band aged and changed and the rest of their audience did not. But that’s the punch line, the turning point. Let’s be honest to the magnitude of this relationship and not rush this. Instead of telling the whole story of Guster, I’ll tell the story with four shows, four albums, and a coda.
Parachute and Goldfly
I still love this song so much. The voicing of that first chord is phenomenal and the inclusion of the violin is inspired. I must also admit that I tried to write this song several times. I am pretty sure I used the same chord voicing to opening a song.
When I first started college it was before Napster, before CD burners were common, and during a time when the greatest peril I ever faced on the road was changing the disc in my Sony portable CD player. My freshman roommate and eventual bandmate Another J and I showed up to college with those cases filled with CDs. We immediately bonded over Soul Coughing, Ben Folds Five and, I must admit, Bare Naked Ladies’ covers.
But when he asked me if I had heard of Guster, I could only say no. See, before the internet made every small cult attraction into international fare, you actually had to talk to someone to learn about new music. For Another J, Guster was a local product, a group he had seen playing on the street in Harvard square, and a clutch of friends who met as undergraduates at the nearby Tufts University where they recorded their first album “Parachute”. It suffices to say that this became the model that inspired us (openly or not) for the next few years. Obviously, we couldn’t live up to it.
As my roommate played Guster every night for the first few weeks of our freshman year, I was struck by the unconventional set-up—they abandoned traditional drums and bass before Mumford & Sons or the Lumineers ever picked up a guitar, yet they are far from a folk/celtic revival band—the complementary but distinct voices of the two singers and the clear but not trite discussion of common issues and experiences in their songs. The chorus of “Scars and Stitches” always struck me as a perfect balance of the insight of adulthood powered by the inspiration of a child’s memories.
So, part of what drove my love for Guster was the band’s difference and the difficulty of classifying them with any genre. Three years or more later, maybe we would have called it “small rock” or something like that, but the band was driven by dual guitars, tight harmonies with vocals that often paired in counter-singing and rounds, and a rough but unique system of hand-drums. As a tonic to the power-chords and distortion that came to dominate alt-rock in the mid-nineties, Guster was powerful and intoxicating.
But it wasn’t just the band’s novelty or the fact that I not-so-secretly wanted to be in the band that made it so attractive, there was also a sense of community. When I met my roommate and soon after my future wife, there were already two Guster albums to enjoy and another one along the way. We would listen to them almost daily and the effect was such that my wife promised that if she ever got a dog she was going to name it Guster “Goldfly” after her favorite album at the time.
The second album had the same combination of innocence and beauty in the song composition as the first, but it was more evenly good. Today, I can listen to Goldfly from beginning to end whereas I often skip some tracks on Parachute. Both songs are haunted by ghosts of who we were then and some nightmares of bad decisions I made. I can smell the interior of our dorm room (where we thought our Palauan roommate was making it stink so we hid dryer sheets under his mattress). I can see the steering wheel of my Buick LeSabre. But I can also see the smiles of my best friends.
Halloween Show, 1997
So, the music called me in, but relationships made me a Guster fan. In October of 1997, we joined a packed house across from Fenway for a Guster Halloween show opened by Jump Little Children (whose own single “Cathedral” was so memorable with a cello turning and the gaunt passion of the lead singer). Someone up front in the show appeared with a crew dressed like the kids from South Park (and the show had just started).
If I loved the band before I saw them live, I couldn’t even contain myself once I joined a crowd of rabid fans. There is something addictive and wholly compelling about bands with cult followings. Everyone in the audience seems completely engaged in the performance while they also feel invested in the band’s success (often paradoxically not wanting them to have too much success). Everyone in the room new every word of the first two albums. And many knew the words of the new songs that were just being sung.
My memory may serve me wrong, but I am pretty sure we heard “Barrel of a Gun” for the first time at that Halloween show, you know, back when the first line was “I love Elton John”. Sometimes you go to a show and leave disappointed because the songs sound too little like they do on the album or radio (Bush); other times you’re disappointed because the live show is uninteresting and the songs sound exactly the same (Death Cab for Cutie); others, the band’s inventiveness and energy is so compelling that you fall in love when you were merely interested before (Bare Naked Ladies). Guster live had a bit of everything: they were passionate, engaged, and just loving every minute of the performance.
We all walked out to Landsdowne Street a little less ourselves and a little more of something else—and that is one of the greatest gifts live music can give you. We tortured ourselves to try to remember the lyrics of the new songs; we speculated about when the next album would come out; and we made certain promises that we would get to the next show as soon as possible.
A Brewery, Portland, Maine and Bates College, Lewiston
It was during the next summer that I had the opportunity to see Guster again. It had been a strange summer—a bunch of us lived in a seaside resort town and worked like crazy. The familiarity and intensity of our relationships helped build some resentments (and it didn’t help that my nuclear family was falling apart or that I had a tendency to act like a total narcissist).
When, at the end of the summer, it turned out that Guster was playing at a local brew-pub and there was no one to go with, I took my brother who might have been 14 at the time and my sister who was about to be a junior in high school. Taking two teens to a brew-pub might sound strange, but it seemed perfectly normal and worked out even better.
As my sister mentions, there may have been a hundred people at the show. Beforehand, we were eating in the restaurant below the club and I noticed the members of the band eating lobsters. So, as a brash just-post adolescent, I took my siblings over and interrupted the meal. I did apologize (I said, “Sorry to be gauche, but could we have your autograph?” They were amused by the word gauche.) I told them I went to a mostly jewish school near Tufts. They asked if I was jewish, I said no, despite my Hebrew first name.
To this day I have a signed coaster that has a Star of David on it drawn by Ryan with the words “not a jew” written underneath as one of the few things I will not throw away. IN a way, I carry that show around with me too. The band filled the room with energy. My sister stole lyrics from a new song, and my brother got to see his first live show. The band’s humility and openness didn’t strike me as unique at the time. Guster taught me to expect such kindness.
A few months later, without my roommate because I had pissed him off with some typically selfish behavior, my band’s drummer, my wife and I drove up to Lewiston, Maine to see Guster play at Bates College. It was another great show that reinforced so many of the things we loved about the band and the experience of seeing them play—a room filled with college kids and younger, shouting lyrics, dancing in a bacchic frenzy, and a band that was along with them for the ride.
Again, it was the intimacy of the experience that made it so strong. Just as in Portland, we stood right next to the stage and my sister got up and sang with the band. The performance experience just gave us the overwhelming sense of being part of something, of being alive.
Lost and Gone Forever
When, during the next winter, Lost and Gone Forever was finally released, my roommate and I had been anticipating it for a long time. It had been recorded a full year before and we had been hearing songs like “Barrel of a Gun”, “Either Way” and “Happier” at live shows. We also knew that the legendary produce Steve Lillywhite who produced the debut album of U2 as well as work by the Talking Heads and The Pogues. It seemed that we were due a great album and that the band was due greatness.
The problem was that this was a different Guster. The first line of the first song (“woke up today / to everything gray”) declared as much. The album was well-produced and filled with fine songs, memorable melodies, and some of the best vocal arrangements of all the albums. Even a fool could recognize that the music was well done.
But there was something missing or perhaps something added. The unrestrained optimism of the hand-drums seemed muted; the band had always possessed a melancholy streak, but that was so often mitigated by the energy and the brightness of the arrangements. The general tone of Lost and Gone Forever seemed presaged by its title. The album was a paean for all that had been lost in the transition from one part of life to another.
And, it was true. The world was changing. We were changing. The band had changed. But the suffusing sadness of Lost and Gone Forever was just too much for me. My roommate could take it, but every time the album played for three or more tracks, my future wife would ask me to change it. We couldn’t listen to it without feeling, well, sad.
By all the usual tokens of a successful song, Guster and their producer achieved greatness with this album. Now, when I look back on it, I actually think it is the band’s greatest achievement. It is beautiful, it is memorable, and it makes you feel. Yet, if you don’t want to feel sad, if you don’t want to feel regret and remorse at the passing of time and our own endless failings, don’t listen to Lost and Gone forever. Even today when “Two Points for Honesty” or “Happier” comes on, my wife asks me to change the song. Guster makes us feel too much.
Keep It Together
So, I think it is fair to say that even though I still loved Guster and eventually loved Lost and Gone Forever, the band started offering me something different. It changed, and I wanted it to say the same. Of course, this isn’t fair, artists need to grow too, but we seem to expect them to be like the CDs they provide for us—the same thing each time we return to them.
The fact was that I also drifted from Guster because I become more of an introvert. Early adulthood made me more cynical and skeptical of that community I had initially found so intoxicating. At the same time, I focused more on even sadder music. By the time I was in graduate school and spending so much time alone, I was almost an emotional wreck. The internet allowed me to spend more time alone and to feel even more isolated.
But was during this period that Guster released Keep It Together which seemed, almost too coincidentally, like a message to me. I loved the first single “Amsterdam”, it is bouncy and fun yet with an undertone of the very skepticism and weariness that I myself felt. Gone from this album were as many of the sadder tunes that populated Lost and Gone Forever. Instead, there were more explorative tracks (“Come Downstairs to Say Hello”) and some shorter, more impressionistic songs, including one of my favorite, “Jesus on the Radio”.
Altogether, the album seemed more optimistic and confident than Lost and Gone Forever just at a time when I needed something a little more of the same. The tracks were bright and memorable enough that my wife and I both loved the album and it became the soundtrack of my PhD exam preparation and her first year of dental school.
Even the less memorable tracks on Keep It Together are good ones.
Radio City Music Hall
So, in the year that Keep It Together came out, we saw Guster at Radio City Music Hall nearly six years after the first time we saw the band play. We were older. The band was older. There were new songs. But, strangely enough, most of the audience was young. My wife and I sat in the mezzanine and remarked at how many fans were there with their parents.
Seeing a show in Radio City Music Hall is very different from seeing one in a small brew-pub in Portland or at a club outside Fenway Park with cultish fans. The room has chairs fixed to the floor. The tickets are more expensive, and, most of the fans had migrated in from the subways after seeing the band on TV or hearing about them online (this was a bit before youtube, at the beginning of google, and a few shakes before Facebook).
This song is so effortlessly optimistic. Ben Kweller joined the boys from Guster on stage in 2003 in New York. We loved it.
In this new setting with different fans, the atmosphere was far from electric. We still loved when they played “Window” and got bleary-eyed at “Happier”, but when the band broke into a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers” all I could think was that it wasn’t nearly as good as the original and that more than half the crowd was way too young to know what the hell was going on.
I know that my wife and I held hands as we left the music hall. I also know that while most of the audience took trains back to New Jersey and Long Island, we went to a bar and talked about how much the scene had changed. In truth, it probably wasn’t as different as we thought it was, but we had changed and the world around us had changed too. The rise of the modern internet made us all interconnected and isolated at the same time. 9/11 and the global war on terror changed our perspectives—especially since we lived in New York at the time.
But, most importantly, we had changed. We grew up a bit and lost a lot—we no longer had the time to while away the hours listening to CDs and skipping homework in the language lab. We didn’t have a group of friends to enjoy the music together. We had each other, work that had to be done, and a memory of a simpler time. Can Guster be blamed for not living up to that memory?
Guster has put out two more albums since Keep It Together (Ganging up on the Sun, 2006; Easy Wonderful, 2010) but I haven’t found either one memorable enough to listen to more than a few times. I have dutifully bought the albums and tried to love them, but the music has just seemed distant. The songs are still competent pop, true, but they seem to lack the inspiration and fire of a decade or more ago.
Like my sister, I find myself sometimes perplexed by the ardor I once had for this band when I consider how little I listen to them now. I am sure I could find some way to fault the music, but some blame must lie as well with me, with the world, and with time. All I can say for sure, is that I once loved that band named Guster. And thanks to a few albums and a few glorious shows, part of me always will.