The Ataris, “Fast Times at Drop-Out High,” End is Forever (2001)
More rock ‘n’ roll recursion: “Fast Times at Drop-Out High” is a subtle but unashamed homage to Jawbreaker’s “Condition Oakland.” The quote isn’t melodic or lyrical though; it’s in the production. See, in the Jawbreaker track, the bridge consists of scratchy-voiced recitation of Jack Kerouac’s October in the Railroad Earth, while in the Ataris’ track, the bridge consists of a near identical scratchy-voiced sample from Good Will Hunting. (Kris Roe is a bit more middlebrow than Blake Schwarzenbach.) As if in confirmation, the following song on the album, “Make Me a Mix Tape” shouts out Jawbreaker in the lyrics. This, combined with The Get Up Kids referencing “Jinx Removing” in “I’ll Catch You” is what made me check out Jawbreaker. That and Andy Greenwald’s Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, (Though I might actually have heard Jets to Brazil first.)
The Ataris actually have been pretty influential on my life. My discovery of Kris Roe’s pop-culture–centric nostalgia coincided with the time I most wanted to rigorously absorb myself in pop cultural history, viz:
My eager absorption of the classics is not something I could or would want to repeat now, but I did get something out of it at the time. Forcing myself to seek out the music and movies and books that popular consensus had deemed unimpeachable made me realize that many of those works weren’t worth the acclaim, but it also expanded my horizons and introduced me to things I genuinely did enjoy — or even love.
And I can’t do that anymore. I can’t embrace the worth of a project of watching “classic” films and reading “classic” books and listening to “classic” records the way I did in my first year of university, even though there are so many of those that I still haven’t watched, read, or heard. (Perhaps one thing I’m better aware of now is the number of non-classic works I haven’t experienced.) But the period of my life shaped by an insatiable desire to conquer the canon had some worth, beyond even realizing the eventual worthlessness of such a desire.
So Roe was a good guide to works I couldn’t access of my own volition, like the archetypical elder brother. (In real life, I am the elder brother.) The Ataris sang about things I already liked, like The Catcher in the Rye, and introduced me to Kevin Smith, Built to Spill, Good Will Hunting (I was the kind of nerd who didn’t pay attention to movies, even ones that won Oscars), Stand By Me, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
They also introduced me to lots of places I was beginning to find very interesting. They sang about “wasting time in east New Jersey” and “missing something in this small New England town” and “dr[iving] to Michigan/600 miles with no destination” and “just another Sunday in a small Indiana town” and “playing a basement show on a Saturday night in Pennsylvania” and how “at 6 am, Las Vegas doesn’t look that cool.” And all these places sounded more amazing and significant than the place I was at the time — particularly since they were the same sort of places pictured in the movies Roe sang about.
Maybe it’s because of what I wrote about here:
The mid ’90s really marked the beginning of this punk and indie rock approach of portraying artists as uncomplicatedly belonging to middle class suburbia rather than obscuring or fleeing those origins. From there you get Death Cab for Cutie’s quiet college party dramas, or Brand New’s aimless parkway loitering or Jenny Lewis’s chain restaurant crises.
Because the overwrought restlessness of bands like the Ataris seemed to say more about my life at the turn of the century than any Australian bands around, who turned national identity into self-parody, or considered it something to be erased. America seemed like a better place for someone like me.
1. I just realized that the first line of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Title Track” — “Left uninspired by the crust of railroad earth that touched the lead to the pages of your manuscript” is probably a reference to the Kerouac piece — particularly in light of Ben Gibbard’s Kerouac fondness. I’d always figured it to be an allusion to Railroad Ave in Bellingham, Washington, which is what Gibbard is referring to when he sings “Whenever I come back, the air on Railroad is making the same sounds” in “A Movie Script Ending.”
2. Back when that book was first published, emo was so obscure and American — this was before “Sugar We’re Going Down” — that I couldn’t find a copy of it in Australia. The very first day I ever spent in America included a visit to the Borders in Santa Monica, where I found a copy of the Greenwald book. I held it awestruck in my hands: this was genuine Americana. During that visit, I also found a book filled with comical observations about the differences between Democrats and Republicans. The only one I remember is Democrats: You can’t believe Abraham Lincoln was a Republican! and Republicans: You can’t believe Abraham Lincoln was a Republican!