The early nineties: years of massive change in my listening habits and, really, a first proper awakening to music, fuelled by the powerful indie spirit of both UK and US alternative rock scenes. To be honest though, I probably wouldn’t have known as much about it if it hadn’t been for the huge ambitions of some of those indie acts, and the corporations that sensed the money to be made from them. Without MTV’s “120Minutes” (and its replacement “Alternative Nation”), and the marvellous, chaotic Ray Cokes-fronted “Most Wanted”, I wouldn’t have had that same level of access to a previously inconceivable wealth of magical sounds. Cable TV eh ? It wasn’t all watching Bravo in the hopes of catching some late-night obscure erotic horror. In Cambridge we lucked-out enormously with our commercial radio station CNFM103 on which Mick and Sarah-Jane’s “Jive Alive” broadcast mainly home-grown indie with a wide-eyed passion. And yes, there was Peel, but I have to say that much as I enjoyed him for his love of the Wedding Present and occasionally tuned into his show, I could never settle into it. I was broadening my horizons slowly, and I wasn’t ready for Peel’s attempts to blow them wide open.
In amongst all this, in 1993, landed Grant Lee Buffalo‘s “Fuzzy”. I caught its sun-spattered video on MTV by accident, with no previous, and after that I watched for it every time I tuned in. Who wouldn’t have been instantly drawn to Grant Lee Phillips, his sensitive face swathed in purple light or brought into stark relief by lightning flashes, singing such strange, poetic images ? I’ve never forgotten the blindfolded man attacking the piñata with a mace, alongside Grant Lee launching into that electrifying first solo. In coming back to the video I have been reminded of the unsettling centre of the piece – the ouija party inside the trailer.
Eventually the mothership arrived in Cambridge library and I borrowed the CD of “Fuzzy” the album, reverential, anticipating, at the checkout. I listened slack-jawed. I didn’t get it. Why would you record something as mellow and beautiful as “Fuzzy” and then assault me with “Soft Wolf Tread” or confuse me with “Stars ‘n’ Stripes” ? I had a very similar reaction to Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” to begin with. The CDs went back to the library.
Something in me wouldn’t give it (them) up though; I returned for it, hesitant at first but then over and over again until I loved it so much I couldn’t afford to miss it because someone else had it on loan. That old blue twin-cassette stereo home-taped “Fuzzy” and the album has stayed with me ever since, never diminishing in power or beauty or the majesty and mystery of its historical and political themes and characters. Its own shining hour was soundtracking a late summer drive out to a party in the countryside with my friend Salima Saxton. We were enjoying the music and the weather so much that we drove around the villages again to keep listening, and ended up getting happily lost in the fens for a while.
Well, this record is from that same sort of time period for Grant Lee Buffalo, bought, I think, from a sale in HMV Cambridge. I remember that, having fallen fully in love with the studio album shortly before buying this, I rejected the vinyl pretty quickly. I listened to it very few times and I was in particular nonplussed by the cover of Neil Young’s “For the Turnstiles”. This 12″ was released on Slash Records, catalogue number LASHX47, in 1993. There’s no additional etching in the runout groove. I’m glad to have made its re-acquaintance.
It was recorded at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London on 15 September 1993 – whether on a full-on European tour or not, I have found it hard to check, but they certainly played elsewhere in the UK at the time, and also in the Netherlands. The EP features 3 tracks from the parent album and that Neil Young cover. It isn’t a scintillating record of the GLB experience (see below for the full effect) although I fully accept that it’s pretty tough for any copy of a live experience to capture the magic. Grant Lee is an interpreter of his own material when he plays live – although he tends to keep that to the singing rather than completely re-arranging material like Dylan, or Adam Duritz of Counting Crows – and that can occasionally undermine the power of his songs. A slightly breathless and imprecise delivery sometimes seems unfair to lyrics that are so evocative – lose some of the sense, risk losing the impact. That said, the playing is solid and faithful and there are some worthwhile diversions in Grant Lee’s guitar playing including some adjustments to the solos in “Grace”, an all-time favourite for me. It’s “For the Turnstiles” that has been most interesting to come back to, however. Little did I know then how much I would come to love Grant Lee Buffalo all-over, but also how much I would come to love Neil Young, and particularly during this miserable, paranoid mid-70s period. It makes perfect sense now that GLB, such a literate, politically-aware band, built on the twin stacks of roots and rock, would cover this song.
“All the bush-league batters
Are left to die on the diamond
In the stands the home crowd scatters
For the turnstiles.”
One more thing before I go – I think you owe it to yourself to explore Grant Lee Buffalo fully. Such gloriously potent rock, powered by artifacts and antiquity, underwritten by the shame and tragedy of the American West, the foundings and the betrayals of the USA by its leaders, desperately and beautifully moved by the possibilities of love and the threats of violence in the air. As a taster, try out this incredible live version of that towering song “Jupiter and Teardrop”, recorded in 2011. “What a lovely day to be in the great North-West with a couple of fuzzboxes”.