But the side of you they’ll never see
Is when you’re left alone with the memories
That hold your life together
-Matt Johnson, The The
It’s clear to me now that many of the pop songs of my youth will be turned into commercial jingles. Sometimes this is a shocking process, but oftentimes it’s just disconcerting. Iggy Pop selling the cruise liner life? Nick Drake selling cars? I lose my bearings when I hear these things.
And now a song I associate with all manner of psychic dead ends is trying to sell me pants.
The song is a pared-down version of “This is the Day” by The The, which was originally recorded in the early 1980s. I’ve only seen the commercial one time. I must have strayed into the wrong television airspace that day—into golf programming or the in-depth discussion of investment portfolios—and before the bombers of self-awareness could force me out of my reverie, this song did, and with a start. This is the Day? Dockers?
In 2002, Matt Johnson (who essentially is The The) said, “the sad thing about it all is that nowadays, before any fledgling movement even breaks out of its shell and begins blinking in the daylight, it’s sniffed out by some trendy advertising brat and featured on a car, beer or financial services commercial.” Whether or not The The was ever part of a fledgling musical movement, maybe Mr. Johnson decided that now was the time to put his money where his mouth is—or vice versa.
It’s not like I feel betrayed or anything. I’m not particularly surprised that The The would sell the commercial rights to a song. For all their off-kilter rhetoric (sample cover art: dove impaled on bayonet), The The don’t strike me as a band that avoided commercialization. But the subtext of the song seems an unlikely tool for selling pants.
The The was a sort of Thomas Dolby beat-box outfit—only substantially more acerbic (one song inflamed Thatcher’s UK by declaring it the 51st state of the USA). Like many bands of that era, they drifted into bombast at times, but I kind of liked them, especially—as everyone always says about bands—their early stuff.
“This is the Day,” a catchy little toe-tapper, was relatively subtle for The The, both musically and lyrically (no crashing beat to get us out of our seats, no references to Armageddon or “the cancer of love”). It was the kind of song that had an underground appeal in the States but could have charted in the UK (though I’m not sure that it did).
At the time, I paid a small fee to “borrow” the LP, called Soul Mining, from a “music lending library” on Broadway in Seattle. Great store. Driven out of business—before CDs, much less MP3s—by the storm clouds of record company hoodoo.
I listened to the record, and taped it (thus the record company hoodoo), drank too much bygone-era beer, then went to bed with one of the loves of my life, a fan of The Who and Romeo Void who is now a Truck-Part Executive and a devotee of drum circles.
The next morning, I went to work with the future executive, the new tape in the cassette deck of her VW Rabbit (“It’s a pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon…”). And while The Love did mysterious front-office things, I went to the warehouse and assembled, yes, truck parts—bending the leads of thousands of resistors just-so, or leaning my head over a smoking (probably cancerous) cauldron of molten solder to connect certain little things to certain other little things.
I didn’t yet realize it, but I was in hell.
More specifically, I was stuck. I was fresh out of college, possessed of a moping kind of idealism which would get me in trouble again and again. I wanted to write. That was the extent of my clarity on the matter: I want to write. But I had no idea how to go about achieving that goal, and really, when a goal is that vague how can it possibly be achieved?
To quote another Matt Johnson lyric, “I’d been waiting for tomorrow all of my life,” or so it was starting to seem. But tomorrow wasn’t coming. I was an electro-mechanical assembler.
So I rented those records, drank those beers, stuffed those little circuit boards, around and around. Writing wasn’t even part of the equation. What’s the name of that Mark Eitzel album? Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby.
So, “This is the Day”:
Well, you didn’t wake up this morning because you didn’t go
You were watching the whites of your eyes turn red
The calendar on your wall is ticking the days off…
It struck a chord. And when Matt Johnson sang . . .
This is the day
Your life will surely change
This is the day
When things fall into place
. . . I understood it to mean that my life would never change, and that things would never fall into place. Reagan was president, nuclear war seemed entirely plausible, and unemployment in Seattle was close to 11 percent. My lover seemed inexplicably ready to marry and have children with me. And my head was about to explode.
Now my head just wants to buy Dockers.
But is Matt Johnson just trying to make a buck? Or has he sold this song as a sort of prank, a way of sneaking a secret message into the pockets of our trousers, with our keys, our cell phones, our flash memory?
I am pants.
I am wrinkle-free.
And I delineate your inertia, your helplessness before time.
This is the day.