Through the Trees, The Handsome Family
Carrot Top Records, January 26, 1998
Track Listing: 1. Weightless Again, 2. My Sister’s Tiny Hands, 3. Stalled, 4. Where the Birch Trees Lean, 5. Cathedrals, 6. Down in the Ground, 7. The Giant of Illinois, 8. Down in the Valley of Hollow Logs, 9. I Fell, 10. The Woman Downstairs, 11. Last Night I Went Out Walking, 12. Bury Me Here, 13. My Ghost
“Even though I started to feel cold
And I was far from town
just sat there in the dark”
Maybe it’s a muggy summer’s day. Maybe it’s raining. Maybe you’re just bored and broke and have nothing to do but scan the Chicago Reader for free and meaningful things to entertain you. You remind yourself—yet again—you’re alive and time is running out. So you might find an offbeat play for 10 bucks. Maybe a free Greek festival. Today it’s a college music event at the quad of Loyola University. You don’t know the lineup, but one band in particular has a couple of songs on the left station dial you listen to all the time on the way to work. The band’s melodies sound like soft and falling snow. Like a crooked raft floating silently down a river. Their lyrics creak and snap like fragile driftwood. You can hear them drip and churn, feel the paddle break the sticky surface. You can smell the smoke fires thick along the shoreline. Something about the song makes you remember the band which makes you stop reading and make the ultimate decision right then and there to drop everything you’re doing and check them out. Strange that is. As if it’s not your decision at all, but someone else’s. As if it’s been decided for you a long, long time before. In then end you’re just tugged along. Like some paper boat in slow water.
“This is why people OD on pills
And jump from the
Golden Gate Bridge
Anything to feel weightless again”
-from “Weightless Again”
Funny thing is no one’s there! Maybe 30 people. Mostly friends of the band. It’s the radio station’s birthday anniversary and nobody cares. A makeshift tent serves as a stage. It’s about to rain. There’s no plastic to cover the gear and equipment. No beer. No food. Lightning strikes the highest towers along Lake Michigan. Brett and Rennie Sparks get up onstage. They look like somebody’s grandparents. Immigrants before the Civil War. You can feel the shoelaces of their stiff Victorian shoes. Black shirt and long granny dress. They could teach geometry. Sunday school. Lure children to their deaths with sticky sweets. They are neither handsome nor a family. But their songs stab your heart like a sharp Flannery O’Connor story. Like Emily Dickinson jumping out of the window. They suck you down and lay you out flat. You gotta get drunk to forget them. But that doesn’t help either.
“They lay out on a green lawn
Full of chocolate and lemonade
But under the blue bowl
The giant was afraid
‘Cause the sky was a woman’s arms”
-from “The Giant of Illinois”
Nobody said it would be easy. Nobody told you the golden road was paved with spit and shit and chewing gum. Worthless jobs filled with humiliation. Broken desks with greasy things underneath. Rude receptionists with natty hair. Bosses who wore smelly shoes. Loneliness. You checked out soiled books from the library. Ate bone-injected hot dogs alone downtown. Got drunk on half-priced cocktails in the saddest, ugliest bars on Granville because you just couldn’t afford more. The city was a vast and hard pile of concrete. Cold steel and glass. Flat prairie horizons that stretched forever to nowhere: Michigan. Ohio. Wisconsin and Iowa. Sapphire lakes clear and death-like to the bottom. All the way down! The Handsome Family sucked you under. Brett’s voice was like a pile of round stones singing at the bottom of it all. Rennie gutted your belly with flashing lyric blades.
And all of this for free! All for you on a hot Saturday afternoon in the square of a Catholic university smack dab in the middle of the greatest city on earth. May the Lord strike us down. May the bodies be pulled from the cross. Tugged up and bloated upon the shore. Body of Christ be with you. Edith Frost had to cut her set or be electrocuted. Rennie sheepishly blushed selling me a CD from her guitar case. I told her how much I liked her lyrics. Brett’s music. She smiled shyly and thanked me. The rain began to pour. The amps were unplugged. The guitars packed away. The day was over and it was time to go home.
I’ve never been quite the same ever since. Like sitting in the dark in a stalled truck in the forest. Watching the snow fall. The album comes on again and I’m right back there. The lightning cracks. The towers shake. There’s a blackness stretching forever across the edgewater. The waves break. The wind howls.
“Bury me here in the silvery mist
Bury me here with the spiders and fish
Down that foggy road
Black bears crawl to sleep
Tree sap slowly seeps
And the sunrise never comes’’
-from “Bury Me Here”