How Much Heart Can You Take?: Ten Days with the Future Virgins’ Western Problems

Learning to Surf is a one-shot zine by Mike Faloon; a look at punk rock from the high side of forty. How does underground culture fit in with a life of family, work, and slightly achy knees? Nine essays including Superchunk vs. Eric Clapton, the Minutemen, plus the latest albums from Black Wine, Future Virgins, and the Jennifers.  Illustrations by Jef Czekaj and Dan Smith.

A few months back Future Virgins released their debut album, Western Problems.  I listened to it a lot last summer and I kept a journal. 

How Much Heart Can You Take?
Ten Days with the Future Virgins’ Western Problems

Day One – July 19

“Did I tell you about this little tick I pulled of my leg this morning? It was the size of a pinhead, so I put it under the microscope at work and it was still holding a tiny piece of my skin. It was so small I could see through it and I could see it was injecting this stuff into the skin. They have this stuff that’s like anesthetic and that’s what it was trying to do.” These are the stories Allie tells me as we drift to sleep.

Earlier today I broke out the new Future Virgins album (Western Problems, Plan-It-X South/Starcleaner). I’d just finished a ten-day journal on the latest Black Wine record. I figured I’d wait until we got back from vacation before I started a new album, but I gave in. That was partly because I found the cover art appealing. It’s saturated with deep, dark purple. It reminded me of a Wonderstuff record, the one with “Don’t Let Me down Gently.” Who doesn’t like purple?

But most of the appeal came from me liking every one of Future Virgins’ four singles and I was curious to see if they could make the leap to a full-length record. As much as I dug those previous records, it’s always taken a couple of spins to adjust to the vocals. Usually, with bands like that, small doses are best. That’s meant to imply differences not flaws. Episodes of The Wire are sixty minutes. Episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm are thirty minutes.

Halfway through side one I couldn’t get the Replacements out of my head—not actual Replacements songs, but my belief that they would have taken over the world if they hadn’t passed out in the doorway trying to leave the house. Flawed characters and romantic yearnings combined with punk rock yelping.[1]

It didn’t take long to think that listening to Western Problems every day for the next ten days would be a good idea, so I stopped the album and started recording it onto my mp3 player. It took forever because there’s no space between “Waiting to Disappear” and “Nowadays” and with my computer I have to place a marker between tracks in order to separate the songs. The same thing happened with “Nowadays” into “Troubled Heart.” It was the first time I’d wished for a download card with a new record. I got so frustrated I considered downloading the album from iTunes.

Day Two – July 20

My son, Sean, woke up at 5:30 this morning. He cried, rolled out of bed, ran into our room, climbed into our bed, and crawled under the sheets. He was back asleep in minutes. Allie and I weren’t. We rested and we dozed while the ceiling fan pushed the cool morning air around the room.

I had to go into work today. I volunteered to be on the social studies committee. For a couple of miles I drove behind a truck with a Bible verse written on the back window. All I could make out was, “Behold, I stand at the door…Rev. 3, 20.”

I listened to Western Problems, too. The first song, “No Echo,” starts off like “Brown Eyed Girl.” First, one jangly guitar. Then a second. Then tambourine on the quarter notes. When it pops into gear, thoughts of Van Morrison quickly fade. From what I know of their other records, Future Virgins write lyrics that lean toward the sensitive and vulnerable, which seems at odds with the volume and tempos. They’re devoid of self pity, too, and that’s worth noting. Sounds like a description of the first two Dag Nasty records.

I think I’m misunderstanding some of the lyrics, though. For example, “Waiting to disappear” from the song of the same name. “Waiting” is not a verb I associate with Future Virgins but neither is “disappear” for that matter. Seems too passive for these guys.

Day Three – July 21

Sean and I were up early again today. He softened the blow by asking to hear “the Candyland band.” By this he means Underground Railroad To Candyland, specifically their song “That I Don’t Know.” I had my mp3 player on shuffle one night when I was doing dishes. The kids wanted to dance and the more I spazzed out to “That I Don’t Know,” the more they laughed. On the way to my office to listen to the song Sean stopped by the playroom to get a plastic baseball bat and a tennis racket. He had air guitar on the mind. I was exhausted so I sat down. “Come on, dad, you have to stand up.” He is a good man.

I didn’t see the Revelations truck this morning so I looked up the passage. “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Revelations 3:20). I thought about relating it to lyrics from Western Problems,but the heat and the guitars said otherwise. It was one hundred degrees when I got home. I had some work to do outside. I put the iPod speakers on the backyard table and brought the garbage to the curb. I broke into a sweat halfway down the driveway. That concluded my manual labor for the afternoon. Still, Western Problems sounded great. It isn’t a headphones record. It’s best enjoyed out loud and in the sun.

Day Four – July 22

A few years ago I saw a movie called Russian Ark. I don’t remember the plot. All I remember is turning it off after ten minutes because it was one continuous shot. There were no edits. A clever idea and probably a technical nightmare—there was only one camera but there were a bunch of different sets. I love labor-intensive ideas but this one was impossible to watch. I needed to blink. I needed those momentary breaks that come from changing camera angles. Maybe it would have worked for a short but not for a feature.

I can get that way with punk rock records, too. A short blast of certain bands, a single or an EP, is more effective than a full-length. I have four Future Virgins 7”s. I’m used to hearing the band in small doses, so I made a playlist that intersperses Western Problems with Mike Watt’s last record, Hyphenated-Man. Side one of Watt, side one of Future Virgins, and then their respective second sides. The Watt album has thirty songs, and that’s too many for me to take in at once. I’m a sieve-minded man.

Western Problems works really well as two EPs. It’s not as frantic as the band’s earlier records; in some ways it’s not as dynamic. In some ways it’s more intense, though. Once they kick into a song they just go. There aren’t as many breaks. (They work their drummer, Cole, like a dog.) It’s a relentless record and there aren’t many chances to blink. But while Russian Ark gave me a headache, I keep going back to Western Problems. 

There was a pause after I turned out the lights tonight. Then Allie said, “I think I’m neutering a goat tomorrow.”
 
Day Five – July 23

Allie had a dream last night that she was on a cruise ship. It had something to do with Harry Potter. She was with a group of people. They were trying to find a sacred door. The hallway was covered in snow. When they opened the door they saw a mountain. It was covered in snow, too. “Then we had to go in this cave. It was so weird. One girl in the group wore high heels all the time. I remember looking at her and thinking how can she wear those?”

We stayed at her sister’s house last night. Allie and Sean stayed downstairs. Maggie and I slept upstairs. Sometimes divide and conquer is the only way to get our rugrats to sleep. We read books and then listened to music. I had my mp3 player and we shared headphones. Even if it’s songs you’re not crazy about there’s nothing better than sharing music with your kid. Maggie didn’t fall asleep as fast as I expected. Instead, halfway through the second song she took out her earbud, said, “You, too, dad,” and took mine out, too.

Today we went to a family party on Cape Cod. We walked along the shore—Allie, me, and the kids. She picked up everything of interest she found, living or dead.  

When I went up to the house to get some drinks I thought about Western Problems. I thought of a list of recurring themes in the lyrics: friends, break-ups, late night conversations under starry skies, secular faith. My last break up is pre-Clinton so I can’t relate to those songs as much, but Future Virgins’ optimism is irresistible. How many bands write breakup songs that give equal weight to both parties? “I want her to stay but she had other plans” (“Half Life”). The song ends with this line: “In the end I see you glittering.” There are even fewer bands that can get away with any form of the word “glitter.”

It was raining when I went back to the beach. I started to run but the rain on my back felt cool, so I slowed down. The ground was spongy and I could feel sand and wet grass and clovers. When I looked up there were bits of ocean grey between the pine tree branches.

Day Six – July 24

I woke up before Sean this morning. I knew he was tired last night because he didn’t cry when the head fell off of his Woody from Toy Story doll. (Can’t just refer to it as his “Woody” or even his “Woody doll.”) As I lay in bed, resting because Sean was still slumbering, the phrase “tearless reaction to a headless situation” popped into my head. It sounded like a Future Virgins lyric. I spent the day singing it to the tune of “No Echo.”

We’re staying in Gloucester, Massachusetts for the next week. I spotted a Bible in our rental house and picked it up (the book, not the dwelling). It reminded me of the Revelations truck. Allie gave me a “What are you doing?” look. It may have qualified as a sneer. I started to read Revelations but was quickly confused by it.[2] I found a note that said it’s the only book in the new testament that focuses on prophesy, what will be. It’s a 180 from Western Problems—Future Virgins are devote followers of the here and now—especially the last song, “Posi Jam.”

There’s no gifts from heaven
And there’s no point in waiting
For some kind of lesson
It’s up to you to start creating

Day Seven – July 25

I went running on the beach today. I am not in good shape. There’s no dodging that. It’s only been a couple of weeks since I started running again. I’m far from the point where my mind can wander. As I came to the southern end of the beach where the boats were moored, the sand gave way to salt marsh. I had a medley of Future Virgins songs in my head, bits of “Half Life,” “Static,” and “Nowadays.” They distracted me from the exhaustion. Then “Key Largo” barged in, the Bertie Higgins song. It went like this:

(Ashley from Future Virgins, Righteous Punk Dude) Don’t let me drift away!
(Bertie Higgins, Yacht Rock Dude) Here’s looking at you kid
(AfFV, RPD) Don’t let me drift away!
(BH, YRD) Just like Bogie and Bacall

It was incongruous but not unpleasant.
 
Day Eight – July 26

Why did Bertie Higgins interrupt my Future Virgins medley? I figured it out this morning. I was in a used record store yesterday and I saw a copy of the Bertie Higgins album with “Key Largo” on it. I’m all for unexpected juxtapositions but I prefer to know their origin stories.

Yesterday on the beach was like having a Bob Arctor moment. He’s the main character in Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. To his friends he’s stoner Bob Arctor but he’s also Fred, an undercover cop. His brain is slowly becoming like a worn out cassette where the sides bleed together, bits of side two are audible when side one is playing. The two sides of Bob’s personality start blurring, the personas bleed together. To make it better, Fred is spying on Bob unaware that he, Fred, is Bob. It’s probably the best Philip K. Dick story.

Day Nine – July 27

One thing I love about being on vacation in eastern Massachusetts is that every seaside town has a used bookstore. I don’t need to buy any books. A few years ago I decided that I wasn’t going to have any unread books. I’d read the ones I already had and I’d only buy other books once I was caught up. I have not been successful. Browsing through used bookstores is too great a joy. Browsing in a used record store is even better.

Gloucester has such a store. Mystery Train. Gloucester is first and foremost a fishing town. They’ve got a monument with the name of each local fisherman who’s died on the job. The list goes back to the 1700s. It’s not a town in which I expected to find long rows of used vinyl, turntables to check out the records, and employees who talk about old Flying Nun releases.

I made my second trip to Mystery Train today and I hit the motherlode. I found a dozen records, took them for test rides on one of the turntables, and bought half of the albums. I didn’t feel like a total glutton because I returned the other half. There was a modicum of restraint, however faint.

Meanwhile, Allie and the kids were at the beach with her mom who was staying for a couple of days. I felt a bit guilty, indulgent, taking that time for myself. It seemed like I was gone for awhile.

It was low tide when I got back to the beach. Allie was reading. Her mom was off with the kids.

“Did you have fun?”

“I could have stayed longer.”

“You should have.”

That put me in an even better mood. When I went to the snack shack to get lunch for everyone “Nowadays” came back. “Don’t let me drift away.”Best line on the record. It’s the line I was singing to myself when I walked past a Dodge Durango, one of those just-short-of-a-Hummer behemoths. The beast was idling and its back gate was open. A lady was changing her baby. Her dude was on a cell phone. I judged them instantly and harshly and I’m fairly certain that if they had Western Problems in their lives they’d know to turn off the engine, leave the cell phones at home, and trade in their gas guzzler for a sensible mid-size.

“Nowadays” was still in my head when I walked past a guy with a Theatre of Pain tattoo on his bicep. He too was in dire need of Future Virgins in his life. If you’re going to opt for early ‘80s muscle rock, at least go for Van Halen.

Don’t let me drift away” was in my head again when I was doing a back float and looking up at the sky. It was cloudy and I could feel the current slowly pull me south.

Day Ten – July 31

It took me a few days to make it to day ten. The whole idea of these ten-day journals was to enjoy a new record and use it as a warm up for other writing. Lately, it’s proven to be more a barrier than a bridge, so I took a break. Things cleared up today.

Flipping through the albums I bought in Gloucester I read a quote on the back of Fred Frith’s Gravity (Ralph, 1980):

“In 1937 Curt Sachs wrote of dance, that it represented ‘the victory over gravity, over all that weighs down and oppresses, the change of body into spirit, the elevation of creature into creator, the merging with the infinite, the divine’ which may not have a lot to do with what’s on this record, but it seemed like a good place to start.”

Then I went kayaking with Sean. We’d moved on to Maine. We were staying with family on a lake. It was late morning and he was asleep halfway across the lake. I put down the paddle for a minute. A water droplet fell from the paddle onto Sean’s leg and slowly streaked down to his ankle. He had a bunch of cuts and scrapes on his legs from climbing rocks on the beach last week. They were nearly healed. They were tiny and they looked like the top of a sand dollar. There was the slightest breeze as we floated in the kayak. The water pushed up, the sun pushed down, and we drifted for awhile.

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[1] Hindsight? I was way off. Future Virgins’ outlook is vastly different than Westerberg’s; far more optimistic.

[2] I have to confess that I don’t always give Bible thumpers credit for being among our intelligentsia. Yet, at same time, the few times I’ve picked up a Bible I’ve understood precious little of it.