I first heard Yeah Yeah Yeahs while cruising around Perth in a secondhand, early model Camry sedan that I shared with my sister.
Driving under a railway bridge, I remember hearing a growling rock guitar that seesawed from just one speaker for a few bars—a strum and a double-strum followed by an electric screech on the third beat. The guitar stopped. A drumstick hit at the same time as a high-pitched, kind of crap, woman's vocal squealed: "I got a date with the night!" The sound panned into stereo and the indie-rock energy came flooding out without stopping until I was sat in the carpark of Planet Video with the album in my hands—a compact disc.
Fever to Tell could only be played at high volume because it sounded so flat; a flatness that had everything to do with the fact the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had no bass. They should have had some bass.
In 2003, the internet was just becoming a thing. I was learning to code with basic html in a media and communications course which had Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a key text—library lessons included how to use search engines.
"'Poor Song," the hidden track from Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut album, would materialise in online guitar tabs that I'd print out and play on an acoustic guitar, self-taught. Karen O hummed the chords on a shaky vocal: her simulated sound of a snare to open, rolling sadly out of the darkness of empty air four-and-a-half minutes after "Y Control" ended.
Back then I didn't know too much about the mythical New York music scene—I was too busy wasting time and taking drugs in Perth—but I was sure things were better in the other hemisphere. The Rapture's dance punk revival classic Echoes was already out, Black Dice were still playing semi-legal spaces in Brooklyn, and Jerry Fuchs, drummer to seminal bands like !!! and LCD Soundsystem was still alive.
DIY venues and makeshift loft spaces were still possible, US college tuition was roughly 80% cheaper and the global economic crisis hadn't hit. Punks still had something to dance about and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' music was tick tick tick tick-ing along with flamboyant, costume-wearing performance.
From behind the sun-cracked vinyl dashboard of a shitty first car that I'd drive until it died, Yeah Yeah Yeahs came from a distant fantasy, of a by now-Brooklyn-based-past of warehouse-living and glamorous orgies where Karen O always had the stage.
She'd be spitting on herself, and sucking her fingers, and doing backflips into the arms of an adoring crowd of peers, while I watched from far away through my headphones. The Camry had a radio but no CD player, so my Sony Discman sat on the seat beside me. I'd watch the band being cool, bleary-eyed, late at night on a suburban sofa; blown-out fast-cuts of celluloid footage and shots of graffiti on a CRT TV with analogue transmission and no means for rewinding.
Producer and performance artist Cody Critcheloe's Fever to Tell cover art featured angry red scratches tying the illustrated bodies of Karen O, Brian Chase and Nick Zinner together in a trembling web of motionless movement. For me it always conjured a synaesthetic link to 'Maps' –my least favourite song that everyone liked for its poignant staccato guitar rhythm and sense of gentle longing: "Wait, they don't love you like I love you." I liked the rowdy songs like "Man" and "Tick," and even "No No No" when I was feeling patient enough to wait through a build-up.
"Baby I'm afraid of a lot of things but I ain't scared of loving you…," Karen croons, in my memory of "Poor Song." I'm sitting in a bar in Brooklyn, thirteen years since first hearing Fever to Tell in Australia. New York's Williamsburg has become unrecognisable to me in the five years of visits from where I live in London. I'm over 30 and past it. It's hard for me to imagine this as the same space that inspired the band, that in turn inspired me ("…Well I've been dragged all over the place…"). The people I'm with are older than me. ("I've taken hits time just don't erase"). They remember a noise festival that happened on Bedford Avenue. ("And baby I can see, you've been fucked with too"). All I can see there is the shiny, reflective glass of sun-blocking new developments and Street Art advertising. ("But that don't mean your loving days are through").
There's now a children's boutique hairdresser next to my friend's apartment. I can't event remember what was there before, probably nothing, but the eyesore of a cheap modern design makes me think the building is new. Sitting at a bench of Union Bar nearby, I'm in a place that's nothing like it might have been, and I feel like I've lost something I never had. The free expression that was so raw and untended when listened through the shaky broadcast and shitty speakers of my Camry Sedan in Perth, Western Australia, had as much hope as I had then and suddenly those worlds seem connected: "…And cool kids, they belong together."
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