There are lots of great rock docs and books about the magic of when a band meets, the headiness of their experiences together, the drama of their conflicts, the sorrows of their demise, the strangeness of their afterlives. But perhaps because it is, by nature, a less enchanting topic, there isn't much discussion about when a band hits a breaking point without making headlines. When a band reaches a place where it's just no longer working. Sometimes it's due to drugs, or differing opinions, family stuff, illness or sheer exhaustion. Sometimes they're just sick of each other. Sometimes there's just nothing left to say.
Things end. And other things begin. You've heard this before. But understanding it and accepting and even embracing the end of something as reality is a whole other thing. When pondering the end of something (a phase or an era or a project), my silly side likes to think of Jeremy Sisto in Clueless singing The Cranberries' "Away" — it helps me keep my spirits up. But the serious side of me (which is the larger part, as everybody is always askin' me, "Why so serious?" and I just don't know) gets bogged down and tries to answer the question: Why? Why do things have to end? Then all the lyrics to "Once in a Lifetime." Then, "What now?"
When you're in it, you're in it, and for better or worse, "it" is all you can see. A band is your life, your livelihood, your whole existence. So what happens when "it" just isn't anymore? Acknowledging the change can be terrifying, but also extremely freeing and a huge relief. Most likely, it's both, and everyone ("EVERYONE!" shouts Gary Oldman in The Professional) eventually has to confront that reality. Is facing that change defeating?
"Quite the opposite, actually: It just makes me more determined," says British-born singer-songwriter Holly Golightly of noted '90s garage-rock outfit Thee Headcoatees (but also of Holly Golightly, and Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs). "We were living in each other's pockets," she says of the final days of Thee Headcoatees. "It was three couples. It was like fucking Fleetwood Mac, and it did go very Fleetwood Mac at the end, which is how it imploded."
But Golightly wasn't (and isn't) sentimental about walking away from that situation. She always played music for herself, and for fun, and it wasn't hard for her to look upward and onward when it wasn't fun anymore. The end of "it" wasn't the end of her.
When you're a unit — when your life overlaps (and underlays) those of other people — it is easy to forget that you're a person with your own feelings, wants and needs. Word to the wise, young bands: Totally subjugate yourself for the greater good. That's how you get things done, if you're looking to live the band life. But then (and this is the hard part) snap out of it. Golightly, who now lives on a farm in rural Georgia, gestures toward her horses, noting — without diminishing her love and total addiction to music — that being in bands isn't what makes her feel valid. "The thing that makes me feel valid is what you see now."
For Greg Cartwright, that decision wasn't so easy, even if it was that clear. With his group The Oblivians — flagship band of legendary Memphis-based Goner Records — Cartwright (who also happens to be my bandmate in The Parting Gifts) says the kind of music they were naturally writing and playing "thrives on confusion and awkward feelings and angst." At a certain point, he was just kinda done with a lot of those feelings and themes, and he wanted to try different things musically. For most people, Cartwright points out, eventually "it's no longer funny and foolish. It's just foolish. ... After that, you're just playing a role. ... You have to wonder who you're doing it for, at that point."
Travel is fun, wild and free. Rocking feels good. You are a gang — a family. You are invincible. Until you aren't anymore. Bruises take longer to fade, hangovers hurt longer, fellow friends who were invincible up and die. Shit gets real. Then what? This is your whole world; it's everything and everyone you know. It's your entire life. What happens when it just can't be anymore? The truth is, serious self, it's a moot point to ponder. The reality is, if you're fortunate enough to keep breathing, life itself keeps going on, and it can be anything and everything you'd like to make it.
For more on this topic, read Eric Davidson's book We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001. Or anyone's, really, when they talk about the end of something. Because, invariably, it's the beginning of something else.
Coco Hames fronts The Ettes, co-fronts The Parting Gifts, co-runs Fond Object Record Store and Arts Collective and contributes film reviews to our culture blog, Country Life.
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