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
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
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
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.