Saturday, March 21, 2009

The iPod Archaeologist — Pulp: His 'n' Hers

With the arrival of my new iPod ten days ago, I'm once again able to carry around my full iTunes Library.  I'm closing in on 41 GB now — and I've recommitted to digging around on the drive to find old favorite LPs.

Today's feature is Pulp's 1994 issue, His 'n' Hers.

Two Alsatian brothers (not Seven Chinese Brothers, or one Alsatian Cousin, mind you) turned me on to Pulp in the summer of '95.  I met les freres Schaffhauser in a youth hostel in London a month or two after graduation.  These two were quite excited to be in England; like me, they were big fans of British music.  We compared notes, and in due course we went out in search of rock clubs to visit.  This didn't go well: we weren't tuned in well to the London scene, and we lost the better part of an evening watching an appallingly misdirected band, the aesthetic of which, as best I can reconstruct years later, somehow managed to incorporate the least appealing elements of Def Leppard, Stryper, and Cornershop into a single, stunningly bad stage act. Try as we might, we couldn't look away.  
The upside of meeting up with the Schaffhausers, other than great company, was that they gave me a tour of Paris before I caught my flight back Stateside — and a month later I received from them a stack of cassettes loaded with music they thought I might like.  His 'n' Hers was on one of them.  The brothers had talked up Pulp all the way through the Channel Tunnel.  I dropped the Pulp cassette into the tape deck of the Sony component sound system and  gave it a shot. At the time I was living in the tiny partioned-off third bedroom of a "flex 3" apartment with V'torix and M'dates in Uptown Manhattan — I was fresh out of school with no clue about a career (some things are constant), I was working miserable hours for shit pay, and my girlfriend and I were on the outs.

Needless to say, Pulp hit the spot. Thirteen+ years later, with a lot of my immediate post-grad issues finally resolved — housing situation upgraded, Girlfriend come around: she's now my Wife — this album still holds up. The band's sound is distinctive, notwithstanding the efforts of the Killers, the Bravery et al.; the song stylings are varied and interesting, ranging from techno to straight-ahead rock to show tunes and ballads; and, of course, there's Jarvis Cocker, with his crack-up lyrics and camp histrionics in lead vocals. Jarvis Cocker, in his day, was an extraordinary personality, and nowhere is this quite so apparent as on His 'n' Hers, an album that comes off like a the original cast recording of a one-man Broadway show. On this album Cocker howls, growls, prowls, grunts, humps, pouts, snarks, seduces, languishes, and dies a thousand deaths. It's over the top, and it's brilliant. Let's review:

"Joyriders" is the opening track, the mission statement. "We don't look for trouble," Cocker explains, "but if it comes we don't run." This from the same man who, during the 1996 Brit Awards, turned up on stage while Michael Jackson was performing and engaged in repeated lewd gestures until Jacko's bodyguards, dressed as shepherds for no discernible reason, could run him down and rough him up. Let's be clear: Jarvis Cocker does look for trouble. "Joyriders" ends with Cocker repeating the lines "Mister, we just want your car/'Cause we're taking a girl to the reservoir/Oh, oh, the people say it's a tragedy." There's a Clockwork Orange reference lurking in here.

The heart of this album is comprised of five songs: "Babies," "She's a Lady," "Happy Endings," "Do You Remember the First Time?" and "Pink Glove." "Babies" is Pulp's Ur-nostalgia/ sexual awakening track. They'd exploit this theme, to greater commercial success, with "Disco 2000" on 1995's Different Class. But "Babies" is the far better track: after confessing to a girlfriend that years ago he slept with her older sister, Cocker shows, rather unapologetically, that he can "yeah yeah yeah" with the best of them (thank you, Lennon and McCartney, for this tradition). Next is the near-disco "She's a Lady," which although it comes in at just under six minutes still manages to sound epic. If you've ever lamented, as I have, that there's no male-equivalent song for Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," this is the song for you:
When you left I didn't know how I was going to forget you.
I was hanging by a thread and then I met her.
Selling pictures of herself to German business men.
Well, that's all she wants to do.
Come on, come on . . .
* * *
Whilst you were gone I got along.
I didn't die — I carried on.
I went drinking every night, just so I could feel alright.
Stayed in bed all day to feel OK. (I felt OK.)
* * *
I tried hard to make it work,
kissed her where she said it hurt, but I was always underneath.
'Cause she's a woman, oh yeah, baby, she's a lady.

As I said, I'd recently been dumped — OK, to be fair, destroyed — by a girl when I first heard this song. So it really worked for me. Likewise the next three tracks: the quasi-show tune, "Happy Endings," wherein Cocker wishes his girl the best; "Do You Remember the First Time?", wherein he makes one last pitch as the insurgent ("I know you're gonna let him bore your pants off again . . . Still you bought a toy to reach the places he never goes") before exploring pathetic attempts at compromise ("I don't care if you screw him — just as long as you save a piece for me); and finally "Pink Glove" (here, live at Glastonbury), wherein he lays it all on the line:
I know you're never going to be with me
But if you try sometimes then maybe
You could get it right first time.
I realise that you'll never leave him
But every now and then in the evening.
You could get it right first time.
* * *
Yeah, it's hard to believe that you'd go for that stuff
All those baby-doll nighties, synthetic fluff.
Yeah, it looks pretty good; yeah, it fits you OK —
You wear your pink glove, babe: he put it on THE WRONG WAY.

All that might look great on paper, but Blogger's rendering of the text doesn't even approach what Cocker does with this material. Somehow, some way he delivers the goods both powerfully and playfully. It's tragedy and comedy at the same time: his tongue is planted firmly in cheek, but it's not clear that at any minute he won't swallow it. His 'n' Hers is fun, and silly, and anthemic — classic singalong-in-the-car material. And very emotionally satisfying to a young, broken man who, by the fall of 1995, had not quite left his John Hughes years completely behind him and truly felt that with his girlfriend up in Cambridge dating another man he had lost, well, Everything.

Great stuff, Pulp. I wonder what ever became of the Schaffhausers. I owe them some music.


Anonymous said...

Hello fellow American. I too met the Schaffhauser brothers (all 3 of them) in England and I ended up marrying one of them. They also talked up Pulp to me and we even saw them at the Reading Festival, but I never fell under Pulp's charm.

Phutatorius said...

Schaffhausers found! Hooray! Sounds like I've missed one, but as a wise man once wrote (and sang): "Two out of three ain't bad."

Every time I decide I'm about fed up with Facebook, it steps up and does something amazing for me. Thanks for writing, shakesrear!

As for Pulp, I think they appeal disproportionately to folks with the Y chromosome. Could be wrong, though.

shakesrear said...

"As for Pulp, I think they appeal disproportionately to folks with the Y chromosome. Could be wrong, though."

Hmm, them's fightin' words. I like lots of music considered "for the Y chromosome", but just not Pulp. I probably haven't given them a fair try though - it's the guy's voice, the un-melodious tunes, and the uninteresting lyrics that turned me off initially. You might wonder why I don't like Pulp while I love Gang of Four. Perhaps it was because I was just a youngster when I started listening to Gang of Four.

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