Ann Powers

The Feelies: Finding Joy In The Same Old Sounds

The Feelies in a press photo from 1988, and standing in front of the same diner this year. i i

The Feelies in a press photo from 1988, and standing in front of the same diner this year. Photos courtesy of A&M Records and The Feelies hide caption

itoggle caption Photos courtesy of A&M Records and The Feelies
The Feelies in a press photo from 1988, and standing in front of the same diner this year.

The Feelies in a press photo from 1988, and standing in front of the same diner this year.

Photos courtesy of A&M Records and The Feelies

A couple of weeks ago, on the eve of the Fourth of July, I went to see The Feelies play at the Hoboken, New Jersey nightclub Maxwell's. If you read that sentence and you felt something, you probably know a few things about the history of indie rock — in fact, you probably spent at least part of your life immersed in it.

The Feelies started playing music in the late 1970s, and quickly became known for doing punk's work without bothering to don its costume. The band's songs, based around carefully detailed yet cathartic patterns of tension and release, cut away the fat that had accrued to rock music, offering an ecstatic experience without heavy posturing. (For a great description of the Feelies sound, read this 2009 review of two key reissues by Mike Powell.)

Cult favorites in and around their home state of New Jersey, the Feelies developed a practice that suited the incantatory quality of their music: they made a point of playing on holidays, with the tiny back room of Maxwell's as their temple, mosque, church and meditation room. For fans obsessed with the quest for an essence rare that lay at the heart of what soon became known as "post-punk," the Feelies offered direct, body-rocking access.

I wasn't one of those devotees in my youth. I spent my college years on the West Coast, emulating Exene Cervenka, and though I'd caught the band on tour before, I hadn't had a chance to commune with them on their home ground. But my husband went to college just a packed-with-undergrads car ride away from Maxwell's, and saw the Feelies whenever he could. Our recent night out in Hoboken offered me a chance to witness the rite that sustained and transformed him. "Now we've done everything together," he said with a grin at the conclusion of the band's two mind-cleansing sets.

I'm thinking about the Feelies today for two reasons: first, the band is playing in Prospect Park tomorrow, and I want to urge the New Yorkers reading this post to go to the show. East Coast weather is ridiculous right now, and standing in a sweaty crowd being hit by wave upon wave of guitar-bass-drums-percussion may not sound like an ideal way to beat the swelter. But as good as Feelies albums can be (and they're all worth a download, from the sparks-throwing debut Crazy Rhythms, through their more expansive mid-period and on to this year's calm comeback Here Before) there is no way to fully understand this band without seeing and hearing a live performance. And to understand the Feelies, as the name more than implies, is to discern the purpose of rock and roll all the way down to your bones.

The other reason that sonic traces of that Feelies show at Maxwell's keep surfacing in my brain because I've been reading Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction To Its Own Past, the new book by the music critic Simon Reynolds.

One of the most respected chroniclers and interpreters of cultural trends working today, Reynolds has previously authored crucial tomes on gender and pop (The Sex Revolts, written with his wife, Joy Press) and post-punk (Rip It Up and Start Again). In Retromania he advances the idea that today, facing backwards passes for forward thinking. "This is the way that pop ends," he announces in the book's introduction, "not with a BANG but with a box set whose fourth disc you never get around to playing and an overpriced ticket to the track-by-track restaging of the Pixies or Pavement album you played to death in your first year at university."

Reynolds's overview of "retro" culture is exhaustive, ranging from the Internet-assisted rise of the blogger-collector-curator to the effect of sampling on mainstream music to the many vintage crazes in Japan. His tone is skeptical-to-despairing: a self-described proponent of the shock of the new, Reynolds worries that pop culture and music in particular may have entered a state of "hyper-stasis" — a paradoxical combination of speed and standstill" caused, in part, by digital culture's disassociation from time.

Expanding on ideas set forth by the futurist writers Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, Reynolds suggests that the flood of instantly accessible information let loose by the Internet has overwhelmed artists and fans alike. "Absorbing five decades of music in a frenetic jumble," Reynolds has written, leaves us amped-up but disoriented, like travelers constantly deplaning in a new time zone. Retro fascinations are like the melatonin we pop to help us adjust — but they don't really locate us anywhere.

I'm grateful for the multi-dimensional view of our past-addled present that Retromania offers. I'm pretty sure, though, that Reynolds would agree that deliberate recurrences that often read as nostalgic play at least one healthy role within music culture — as what the Feelies have made them, a holiday event, a ritual.

It's hardly new for critics to dwell on the ritual aspect of live performance. The writer Michael Lydon was making fun of the tendency as early as 1968, when he wrote about the Doors for the New York Times. As much as we writers might overstate its shamanic aspects, there's no doubt that many people love music because it creates a space apart — a space very much like the holy zone of the temple, mosque or church. Scholars like Simon Frith, Susan Fast and Wendy Fonarow have carefully examined the role that such spaces serve in defining individuals and creating communities. But you don't need to read a book to know that — you probably live your own version, on the jam-band circuit, at your annual local jazz festival or, like those Feelies fans in Hoboken, at a beloved club.

We definitely noticed the mostly grey-hairs in the Maxwell's crowd — I spotted at least two sets of parents with what looked like adult offspring, engaged in passing on a beloved legacy. But is nostalgia the only motivating factor when lifelong fans go see a band like the Feelies? Or should we remember that repetition can also be a route into new perspectives on important aspects of our inner lives?

I should stop myself right now and note that the Feelies aren't historical reenactors. They did play one set of mostly new songs, and it inspired nearly as much excitement in the crowd as the more archivally-oriented second set. But when they do play the old stuff, these longtime collaborators aren't trying to take listeners back to some ideal and probably fictionalized past. They're reminding us sometimes change can be very subtle, and that creative exploration can be just as powerful when an artist mindfully revisits familiar ground as when he or she leaps off into some new zone.

This might be obvious to anyone who loves the paintings of Mark Rothko, or the films of Ozu Yasujiro, geniuses whose focus could seem small but who found infinity in small details. I'd say the same thing about the Feelies. Asked by the music writer Jason Gross about the new songs the group debuted during shows in 2008, singer-guitarist Glenn Mercer said, "They sound like all the other ones, you know." And he laughed — though not in embarrassment, I think. More in acknowledgment that for the Feelies, sounding the same was exactly right.

The climax of the Maxwell's show I saw was (unsurprisingly) similar to Feelies sets going back decades: a long dip into the repertoire of classic rock, including songs by the Stones, the Doors, the Stooges, their peers R.E.M., and their inspiration the Velvet Underground. (Here's a list of Feelies covers, compiled by a meticulous fan, spanning 32 years.)

Their version of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" inspired my one nostalgic moment that night — it took me back to a Maxwell's show I'd attended circa 2000, when Joan Jett channeled Iggy Pop using the same tune. But the Feelies did their own thing with rock's endlessly recycled past. Their versions didn't recreate anything as much as rebuild the engines of those worn vehicles. The crowd cheered, letting the band take them back, forward, any old way they wanted us to go.

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