Written on 10/22/11, the 20th anniversary of Girlfriend’s release
Well, I didn’t go to Baltimore. I was incredibly sad to have to cancel my tickets but the sickness I’ve had that just won’t go away ramped up and right now I feel a bit of a wreck. Certainly in no shape to walk around all day. You should hear me hack up a lung!
But enough of that. Something else happened that put me in the mood to write about this record, so at least as far as this blog is concerned, it’s all OK. I don’t really remember how this happened but something inspired me – inspired is so positive, that’s probably the wrong word – to start searching for the positions I’d applied for last spring and see who had actually gotten those jobs. I already know one of them. I ran into him at a professional get-together and at first I couldn’t quite get over the fact that he’d gotten the job, because he wasn’t even in the section of my program for people who want to do what I do. I kept stammering out things like, “oh, I applied for that job” and “I met the people from that school at the job fair,” [he: me too! - duh]. But then I blurted out something really honest that is almost too flattering for me to ever utter. I said, “I’m glad if I didn’t get the job, someone I like did.” He looked so happy at that, so surprised in a good way, that I immediately knew it had been the right thing to say, even if I’d said it without meaning to do so.
But some of the people who got those jobs were people I wasn’t as happy about. Not because I didn’t like them but because they made me wonder. They were people less experienced than me or who had gone through a one year program and not a two year. For some of these places, I hadn’t even gotten a call-back or I had gotten a first interview and not a second. I somehow forgot all the things I tell other people when they don’t get the job (sometimes you have no idea what they are looking for… it’s not personal… they may just want the guy who said X or knew Y and the job you are meant for will go to you and not someone who seemed more right than you). I forgot all that. I forgot that I got a job no one would have thought I’d get. A job that I’m still shocked I have. All I remembered was this feeling, the one that is summarized by this song sung in this way.
For me, this song, the demo version of Matthew Sweet’s Divine Intervention, is the sound of uncertainty and doubt. I’m pretty safe now but when I first heard this song, everything he sings was true for me. I didn’t know where I would live or what I would do. It was 1992 and I had finished college a semester early. I was bumming around, taking a couple of classes, working at the record store, and trying to plan but failing. College, you may remember, had destroyed most of my self-esteem and faith in my own abilities. The Queen of England ended 1992 by saying it had been her “annus horribilis” and all I could think was, “me too, sister, me too.” By the middle of the year I’d completely isolated myself by moving to a neighborhood where I knew not a soul and staying home most of the time I wasn’t working. I had no car and couldn’t get many places. Later, I broke up with the guy I thought I’d marry and subsequently was diagnosed with a lifelong chronic illness. And this was all above and beyond not knowing what the hell I wanted to do with my life. Uncertainty and doubt were my middle names.
You may remember from such posts as the last one on this blog that I said I didn’t like Girlfriend at first. I didn’t. I loved the song for sure. When you have just gotten back together with the person who you have spent the previous two years crying over, this is the song you really, really want your radio station to be playing the hell out of. Luckily, I happened to live in the range of the greatest radio station of that time period, WHFS, and they obliged.
But I didn’t get into the rest of the record right away. Back at Matthew Sweet’s record company, they were excited that this record was becoming a hit. The first two, on other labels, had gone nowhere. It took a long time, months, for this one to become successful, which is why I hadn’t even heard this song until Spring 1992. They understood that most record stores had already finished playing the Girlfriend CD and so they sent out another one with a twist. It was mostly made up of acoustic versions, demos, and live versions of the songs on Girlfriend. It was called Goodfriend and that’s the one I fell in love with. How could you be in a position of uncertainty and not feel that first track I posted above?
And then the actual record…. I still consider it a blanket, a balm. It begins with that first track, Divine Intervention. Matthew isn’t religious and so he means it in a sarcastic way, I suppose. But for me, it is about faith. That feeling of doubt will always be with us. The “counting on divine intervention” part is the way we get through that: by knowing it will get better somehow. The song asks, “does he love us?” Don’t you wonder sometimes? But I always end up thinking, “yes,” despite the fact that I’m usually listening to it when I’d be least inclined to answer that way. It’s a bit like the Kaddish. At your moment of highest doubt is when you are forced to praise God. It’s hard. But I have to, I really have to. I don’t know what else to do if I don’t. If you don’t believe in God, I think it still stands for hope for better times. The turning point of the song is the gentle singing of “here comes the sunshine,” but it’s only superficially like the Beatles’ version because it ends in a cynical “here it comes.” Because it’s hard to believe those platitudes sometimes, isn’t it? The song then plays out… or does it? It ends but comes back and that was my favorite part, because it represented the knowledge that hope is always there, even when you think it’s dying away. You think the song is over but it isn’t.
Here’s the track from the record. In case you need a blanket.
This album is all about that, really. It’s about breaking up and falling in love, because it was written over a long period of time and in that period, Matthew Sweet got divorced and then met and fell in love with the woman he’s still married to now. So it really hits the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. When we used to play the CD in the record store, we’d debate which was the most depressing song, because there were lots of candidates. I used to argue that it was “Thought I Knew You,” the song described on Goodfriend as one of “bitterness and betrayal,” because I felt the fact that it took him years to figure it out was horrifying. But I was usually outvoted. I’ll put them both up and you can decide.
1. My choice
2. The other record store people’s choice
But then you go to a song like this, which is so giddy with the hope of love winning that the record label president requested Matthew sing it at his wedding.
I think this record that shows in the midst of despair, of doubt, of hopelessness, that there is still the possibility of future joy and happiness is the greatest one ever written. You may think I say it changed my life because it helped me through the toughest time of my life (until my Mom died, that is). But that isn’t the whole truth. I became an evangelist for this album. Whenever anyone came in the store I’d push it and tell them they could bring it back if they didn’t like it. No one ever did. I would buy copies to gift to friends, especially if they were going through breakups.
Eventually I did decide what I wanted to do and where I wanted to live. I moved back to New York and went to grad school. But I soon realized I had made the wrong decision. In the kind of madness possessed only by 22 year olds, I decided I wouldn’t rest until I worked at Matthew Sweet’s record label, convincing the masses to buy Girlfriend. I still worked at the record store and the label’s distributor used to send a rep to our store to put up posters and talk up the records. It was through him that I met Matthew the first time, at a showcase at Wetlands, which no longer exists except in my heart. He also gave me the name of someone at the label to contact. I did and offered to work for them for free (oh to be young and live in an apartment paid for by your parents while you finish school). He interviewed me and then said, “but there’s no position. Keep calling!” They always tell you that to get your shot you have to be in the right place at the right time. So I was there all the time. I called from my school’s bank of phone booths every week to see if there was anything available. Nada. And then one day there was.
So I dropped out and the rest is history. When students from my alma mater would write and ask me how to get into the music industry, I didn’t know what to tell them. I got in because of Girlfriend. If you want to ask how I could leave that, it’s because there was no one I cared about enough to make it meaningful. There was no Girlfriend. When I was growing up, I was the Girl Who Loved Music. When we had to do a report on a hobby, mine was on music. When we built toy boats to race in the community youth group, mine had a big music note on the sail. When I went to Yale’s summer program and took Psych 101, I did my experiment on people’s perceptions of song lyrics. It feels strange to have grown older and not be that girl anymore. But one thing hasn’t changed: when I need hope, when I need a blanket, I use music.
You may also ask what it was like working with one’s idol. The answer: complicated but ultimately the greatest thing that can ever happen to a person. I’ll never forget it.
Title comes from Day For Night, which I felt was written about my decision to break off my relationship with College Boyfriend. I never understand how Matthew knows these things.