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February 3, 2009 |

By TK Burton | Music | February 3, 2009 |

In my life, I’ve been called a hipster, a snob, a dick, and a pretentious douchebag, all because of the music I listen to. Sometimes, I say it about myself. It’s okay. I know that I tend to gravitate away from the top 40, that sometimes I think that the worst albums by my favorite artists are their most popular hits. And this tends to rub people the wrong way. Hell, it rubs me the wrong way.

I rub myself the wrong way.

But, if there’s one thing I can say for myself, it’s that I remember my roots. I remember what it was like growing up the fat kid, and I remember having parents who worked and left me at daycare day in and day out so I had someone to watch me, and I remember dealing with overpowering girls. And because of all of this, I remember a lot of shitty music in my childhood. I remember being force-fed Radio Disney on rides to and from elementary school, only to get back to the daycare center and listen to a group of girls practically fondling themselves over cassettes that I hated, pop crap that made me angry, but about which I could not do a thing but listen and wait for it to end.

Going home wasn’t much better. Sure, my dad listened to a lot of classic rock that I recognize today as being great, like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, but he would also listen to whatever was on the local classic rock station (KS92 in the Twin Cities area), including old ’80s hair metal tracks that made me sick. My mother listened to opera. My grandmother listened to country. My cousins listened to music that, frankly, I wasn’t allowed to listen to (except Hanson and The Spice Girls, which I had an odd affinity for).

I always loved music as a kid. I would sing up and down the halls of my childhood home. I joined a boys choir when I was in the third grade (it might sound lame, but I’ve been to Europe, Australia, Hawaii, and New Zealand because of that group, so you can suck it). But, in a way, I never felt I had music I could call my own. I liked what I was told I should like. I listened to what was on, and didn’t really fight anyone on it.

Then, one morning on the way to school, I heard a song that, if you’ll forgive the clichĂ©, changed my life. And that song was Fastball’s “The Way”.

“The Way”

Something about “The Way” struck a chord with me (hardeeharhar). It was catchy and hooky and fun, and the guitar solo (which I didn’t recognize at the time but definitely understand now) pulsed with an infectious swagger. And when the song was over, I wanted to hear it again and again. Something had triggered in me, and it wouldn’t shut up. No one around me seemed particularly affected by it. I think it was the first time I felt the frustration of a critic, that feeling of loving something so desperately, though no one else seems to care.

That weekend, my parents and I went on vacation. While we were walking through a department store, I saw the cassette of Fastball’s All the Pain That Money Can Buy on sale for $7, and begged my mother to buy it for me.

pain.jpgIt was amazing. Everywhere I went, I took the cassette (and my old-school Sony Walkman) with me, listening over and over and over until I knew every song by heart, word for word and note for note. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before; I felt like I’d discovered something just for myself, like a secret no one else could understand. A ridiculous notion, as “The Way” became the band’s first and only number one hit, but to a child, the feelings matter more than the facts.

I began carrying the cassette with me to daycare, forcing everyone else to listen to my music, and actually fighting with people who wanted me to turn it off in favor of whatever terrible pop album was being peddled onto us that week. More than once I was told by an adult that I shouldn’t listen to the song “Charlie, the Methadone Man”, and even got the tape taken away a few times. Yet I persisted. I showed the band to friends, practically pleading with them to like the music as much as I did. And they usually entertained it; they would listen and tell me I was right, it was good. But no one understood Fastball like I did. I was their biggest fan, as far as I knew.

When my parents got me a CD player for Christmas, I used my allowance to buy All the Pain That Money Can Buy on the new format. It was the first album I ever bought myself.
The rest is a complex musical love affair:

harsh.jpgI bought the band’s third album, The Harsh Light of Day, when it was released in 2000, and, not long after, stumbled upon what was actually their first release, Make Your Mama Proud. The former was a gradual progression from All the Pain…, in that it felt darker, and it featured violin solos and weird music box noises with French women talking over them, and it was both grand and intimate. The latter was a shock to my system: It was the closest thing to a punk record I’d owned to that point. As is the case with many bands, Fastball started as a garage-punk outfit, with songs that were fast and dumb and included swearing and not-so-subtle messages about how much television sucks and how you shouldn’t get into bar-room brawls. It was simplistic and fun and not at all like the band I’d grown to love. But I still enjoyed that record to death, because it was Fastball, and they were unimpeachable to me.

That was the first time I learned about the evolution of a band’s career, and the concept that just because a new release doesn’t sound like an artist’s other work, it doesn’t mean that it’s bad, something that I think we forget far too often in this business.

Fastball remained one of my favorite bands until I got into high school, sticking with me even as I went through progressively darker phases of musical exploration. At one point, I remember making a poster with a pen and a sheet of printer paper that said “Fastball and KoRn”, my two favorite artists at the time. Then in high school, some friends introduced me to the indie rock scene, and things went from there. But that’s another story.

I recognize that this isn’t the typical story about a musical artist. I’m talking so much about one band, but hardly saying anything about what makes their music unique, or even why I like them in the first place. And that’s because I really can’t say. For me Fastball isn’t just a memory from my childhood, Fastball practically DEFINED my childhood. We all have that band or artist that got us to really love music in the first place, and it wasn’t so much their songs or their style or any specific thing about them, it just clicked, the chemistry was triggered in our brains, and every memory of them is a memory of growing up and learning and becoming your own person, and likewise every criticism of them is a critique of your own naivety, your flaws and the awkwardness you had to grow out of little by little before you could say that you were all grown up.

wig.jpgFastball fell into the back of my collection for many years. I let their cases languish on the shelf, occasionally popping the discs into my CD player and skipping around for my old favorite songs, but never really listening. They came out with another record in 2004, Keep Your Wig On, but listening to it was a troubling and painful experience, as (besides being a subpar album) it reminded me of all the mistakes I made when I was a kid, how stupid I was. I didn’t listen to them again for a long time.

Then, November 2008, I saw something I never expected: In the weekly Ticketmaster event update newsletter hoo-hah, I saw “Fastball - The Fine Line Music CafĂ©”. Tickets were extremely cheap. I went to the band’s website, and somehow, without my detection, the band had stayed busy over the years I’d forgotten them. They’d released a live album in 2006, keeping a ten-year streak of putting out a CD every two years, and had a new album set for 2009 (ultimately breaking said streak). And now they were touring.

For most of my young life, my white whale of music was always being able to see Fastball perform live. They came to Minneapolis several times while I was a child, playing bars and little clubs, and I’d always either be too late or the tickets would be too expensive, or (more often) I was too young to get in. But now, here they were, returning to my hometown. I bought a ticket, just one, figuring no one else would want to go with me (which ended up being the case).

The night of the show, I got to the club a full half hour early. There was one person in line in front of me. He’d gotten there a half hour before I had, expecting a huge crowd. No one else showed up for about twenty minutes, and even then the line was sparse. So this guy and I got to talking. With a band like Fastball, I expected a lot of thirty-somethings to attend the show, drunks with time to kill and money to burn who’d love to relive their glory days from the late ’90s, that time before they got married and the Twin Towers got hit and they got shelved with jobs no one wanted for pay they could barely live on. But this guy was young, just a couple years older than I. And he was still as in love with Fastball as I had once been.

He told me that he owned every Fastball album, and the albums of the band’s side projects. He said he had video tapes at home with every one of Fastball’s television appearances. And he said that he’d seen them in concert many, many times. At first, I felt awkward around this new acquaintance, my affair with the band long since passed and still mostly kept secret but from those closest to me. But after a while, I felt a sort of kinship with him. I felt comfort in knowing that I wasn’t alone in my love for this band, this group that I had built to an almost mythical status in my youth, and I felt an even stranger comfort in the fact that I was not, in fact, their biggest fan. Someone else held that claim well over me. And that, for whatever reason, made me feel much more relaxed, much less tense. I could think critically, and if I ended up not liking the band after they played that night, so be it. I wasn’t their biggest fan anymore. It wasn’t a big deal to me.

FastballShow.JPGBut sometimes when your past meets your present, you discover that maybe you weren’t as stupid as you thought. Because when Fastball came out and played their set, I gotta say, I had a great time. I was front and center, within an arm’s reach of these men whom I’d once worshipped as legends, and I wasn’t intimidated or uncomfortable. I wasn’t starstruck or dumbfounded. I even sang along on those oh-so-catchy hits whose words are etched into my brain. They played all my favorites. Someone in the crowd shouted for “Charlie, The Methadone Man”, and they actually played it, forgetting the words and the chord progressions, but the crowd cheered them on and sang every note as if the song was exactly as they remembered. It was extraordinary.

(I filmed that myself with my shitty camera.)

When the show was over, I went to the merch stand and bought a copy of their 2006 live recording, and, after some deliberation, a t-shirt. And with a smile, I said goodbye to my new friend, the great lover of all things Fastball, and trekked back to my car.

It’s been over a decade since I first heard “The Way” on the radio, and I don’t know what my life would have been like without it. Just the fact that I’m typing this is a testament, not to the band’s musical prowess, not even to the band itself, but to the power of music, how it can shape us and carry us from one place to another, how no matter what influences us, even if we’re too embarrassed to admit it in public, we can always count on music to change us. Whether it’s that song that gets you out of a bad place and into a new beginning, or that video that inspires you to take charge of your life and embrace independence, or that album that, no matter what happens, will always keep you close to your home, music is transcendent. Music is beautiful. Music has a purpose, even if we can’t always define what it is. Whatever I become in life, I can partially attribute to Fastball, and that one pop song to which I will always know the words, until the day when I know nothing else.

Christian Hagen is a music journalist from Minneapolis who is also in a band), who likes to waste his time writing about nothing, and who has yet to launch his own website (though one is on its way for Spring), so for now he can only link to his MySpace profile.

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TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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