“Is there an artist whom you absolutely adore and who is the epitome of alternative music as you see it?” Andrew asks in the middle of one of our strings of back-and-forth emails covering everything from mentoring new curators to compiling an alternative music community playlist, as well as my coronavirus lockdown DIY haircut and his rebellious COVID-19 coif.
We have never met IRL, but Andrew — the founder of musicto.com — has this vibrant, go-getter way about him in Zoom meetings and pre-recorded Facebook videos. Even over email, his enthusiasm is infectious.
“Imagine an article with a title like, ‘The Ultimate Alternative Artist’. Interested?”
“Yes,” I respond, mindfully avoiding eager all-caps and perky exclamation points. At least twenty different bands and musicians come to mind before I put down my phone, grab my laptop, and open a Google doc. I key in another twenty-plus musicians, and then stop and stare at the screen. How on earth can I pick one artist to represent a genre (for lack of a better word) as diverse as alternative music?
I stare at it for three days, zooming in on bands whose entire catalogues I’ve owned on tapes lent out and never returned, CDs lost in a hundred moves, and vinyl records rotted by molding paper sleeve jackets in my parents’ cellar. I strike-through musicians who are no longer active, reluctantly edit out some who are, and finally my eyes adjust in close-up on the only remaining artist: PJ Harvey.
“4-Track Demos,” my friend Adam — who used to be semi-obsessed with PJ Harvey — says.
“Yep,” Lauren agrees. “4-Track.”
I’m trying to remember the first PJ Harvey album I ever owned and make the mistake of saying it only included three or four tracks, but 4-Track Demos was released in 1993 and this isn’t it.
“I mean, it literally had like three or four songs. Five at the most.”
I remember the feel of the transparent case. It was slimmer than a normal compact disc case. The artwork eludes me, though. That’s unusual, because the photos and videos of Maria Mochnacz, one of Harvey’s long-time collaborators who shares her mantra of “not doing things that have been done before,” are outstanding. The starkly blunt image on the face of Dry is difficult to unsee. The front and back covers that bind the artist and music as a commodity on 4-Track Demos is a brilliant bit of cultural commentary. And Mochnacz-directed works, from “Dress” to “Send His Love to Me,” have more in common with avant-garde filmmakers like Maya Deren than label-approved MTV-ready videos.
Then again, I was at the beginning of my foray into visual culture that year, and might have neglected to explore the album art, which I didn’t fully appreciate until a year later.
“I’m sure the artwork was black and white.”
“Rid of Me?” Lauren tries to guess.
“No, earlier than that.”
“Dry’s the only one left,” says Adam.
“It’s not that one, either.” I lean my elbow on the arm of the sofa and rest my thumb on my temple, massaging my index and middle fingers into my forehead with my eyes closed. My brain feels like it’s going to explode.
“I can taste autumn…”
“Pumpkin spice latte?”
My eyes pop open. I look at Lauren and laugh.
“Please, you know there were only two types of coffee in the early 90s: Tim’s and Coffee Time.”
“There was Country Style.”
“Was that the grungy little franchise?”
“No, that was definitely Coffee Time.
We go off on a tangent because we’re from Canada, and donut shops are on every corner — sometimes on all four corners, occasionally lined down the street. But pumpkin spice lattes didn’t exist back then and wouldn’t emerge until a decade later.
It was late October, though, and it was 1991. It was the first time I’d seen my brother since he returned from Europe. He handed me a piece of the Berlin Wall. He would give another to our parents. My grandfather, an artist, sketched a map of Germany, which mom framed with that graffitied little chunk of history at its center, and hung it on a narrow strip of wall in their restaurant.
Polly Jean was in Berlin when the wall came down. My brother was there during its demolition. I imagine their shoes stirring up the same concrete dust along the Luisenstadt Canal.
I don’t know what happened to my piece of the wall. It was probably misplaced eventually, like that PJ Harvey CD I played for him as he lit some herb, I smoked an Avanti, and we sipped Black Label beer.
“Fuck, this is great,” he said when the fuzzy grind of the guitar kicked in. I zeroed in on the lyrics. Neither of us could recall having heard such severe and untempered words like those of the slashing “Dry,” although I immediately related to the defiance of “Dress.” We both adored the raw sound.
It was the last real conversation we had. He left for the West Coast soon after. I graduated Uni two years later and began traveling to find my place in the world. We didn’t see each other again until our mom died several years later.
“Dress!” Lauren shouts, and Adam and I both grab our phones.
“Right, she’s famous for pre-releases,” he says looking down at the screen. “Wow, you even had that demo, Jane? And I thought I was obsessed.”
I swipe through PJ’s discography on Spotify to that album. It fits the bill with the black and white cover and only three tracks. I press play.
The songs have a grittier sound in my memory. The lyrics felt dirtier at the time. The effect of multiple listens over the years, perhaps, the distance between my current emotional space and the one I inhabited then. Or maybe the album obsessing me was a behind-the-counter bootleg bought from a long gone back-alley record store.
Interested in Alternative Music?
The musicto curators recently came together to answer the question: “What Is Alternative Music” and Jane curated a playlist to go with the answers.