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It Looks Like No One Can Take Your Place: Galaxie 500 on DVD

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Nathan Hogan examines Galaxie 500's new DVD release Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste (1987-1991) and discusses the project with the band.

It Looks Like No One Can Take Your Place: Galaxie 500 on DVD

During their brief period of existence from 1987-1991, Galaxie 500 fashioned a small but lasting body of music: 3 full-length records and a handful of demos, EPs, and 7”s. For many, it is music with talismanic qualities. It’s frequently discussed in terms of its lineage, with critics drawing an effortless line between the self-titled Velvet Underground record, the screwy, adolescent conviction of the Modern Lovers, and the deconstructed-pop jubilee of Beat Happening – then plotting the point where Galaxie 500 fit most cozily, influences stitched to their sleeves. But most people don’t find their way to Galaxie 500 by traveling that line, or if they do it isn’t why they stay, or why the records always end up mattering so personally. Today, On Fire, and This Is Our Music are more than dust-collecting placeholders in a record shelf map of the canon. They’re as good as their influences, and in some respects better.

Thousands of bands have used the Velvet Underground as a template, but few have burrowed so completely inside of one single facet of their sound, neglecting to clutter it up with a jumbled love for the leather jackets, the Factory aura, the S&M books. Dean Wareham, Damon Krukowski, and Naomi Yang singled out the best three Velvets chords and turned the reverb up to 11, fleshing out the familiar in a way that felt worlds apart from its antecedent. They did the same with Richman – where the K-Records camp has made their Jonathan worship a science, their collective paean to his kooky brand of conviction has never able to duplicate his elegance, the root of his charm, but Galaxie 500’s had that from the beginning. It was in Wareham’s careful guitar playing and the thin, reedy lines of the first single, which look ridiculous and unmistakably Jonathan on paper – I don’t want to stay at your party / I don’t want to talk to your friends – but which are unimpeachable when wrapped in their quilted blanket of guitar haze.

Because their major and minor recordings are presented so artfully in the Rykodisc box set, it’s surprising and delightful that more material has surfaced in the form of a 2-DVD set on Plexifilm called Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste (1987-1991). I asked the band – whose members have found success in Luna and Damon & Naomi since 1991 – what their impetus was for continuing to revisit this period. Yang explained, “many people, or most, who are interested in Galaxie 500 had never seen the band perform live,” and Krukowski affirmed that the footage, “though technically not high quality… is a direct visit back to that time.” As a “direct visit,” the DVD is an intriguing compliment to the box set, which presents the band in the veiled manner of Wareham’s oblique lyrics and Kramer’s production wizardry. The DVD lacks the alchemic, celestial imagery that rhymes with the chrome-heavy convertible of their namesake. It’s considerably more frank than that – moving chronologically, offering casual glimpses by way of dim stage lights, shaky cameras, and in-camera sound.

Yang, whose involvement originated from her belief that a band “was a great graphic opportunity”, utilized Man Ray photographs and 18th century astronomy diagrams for show posters. But the DVD reveals another kind of iconography altogether – a basketball hoop hanging above a prep school gym stage, the cramped confines of an early Middle East festival, the sly grins at playing Modern Lovers songs in the middle of the afternoon. While not always flattering – “We all have to start somewhere,” Wareham told me, “and it’s better than the early footage I’ve seen of Alanis Morissette” – there’s a charm and a thrill to watching these songs take shape in such informal surroundings, captured the way somebody in the third row might have experienced them. Encased for posterity in the box set, the songs achieve a new fluidity as show follows show – or as Krukowski sees the performances, “one show played over several years' time, like time-lapse photography.” In this way, a song can crash and howl ferociously at The Point, in January of 1990, then slither in keen balance at The University of London, in November of the same year. “One thing I’ve learned about recording,” says Wareham, “is that the magic happens when you least expect it, almost by accident, and a great record can be made in 5 days just as easily as 3 months.” For a band known for recording albums in a series of single-takes, Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste (1987-1991) presents an alluring range of those serendipitous moments.

Also included on the DVD are the four music videos shot by Sergio Huidor. They’re arresting and mysterious, with a dialectical approach to the soundtrack that’s been largely abandoned as the form’s gained greater prominence. Television car crashes and stock footage bomb explosions flicker in serene repetition as Wareham shakes feedback out of his instrument; the beauty of the violence -– depicted with scratched emulsion, video grain, and colored filters – seems designed to underline contradictions, enhance uncertainties. “Sergio's images are Sergio's, which is one of the reasons I think those videos work so well,” says Krukowski. “They have a logic known best to him.” But he acknowledges that their effectiveness can be traced, in part, to the way in which they deflate simple categorizations of the band. “We didn't indulge in any of the sad bastard cliches that writers often foisted on us,” Krukowski notes, and Huidor’s videos assist effectively in that resistance, beautiful in their own right.

In interviews, Galaxie 500 often communicate a sense that what they created was a kind of eruption, something ephemeral, demanding a brief lifespan. “Somewhere in there we learned to play music,” Krukowski writes in the box set liners, “I never thought we would. It ruined the joke of being in a band.” I asked all three of them about this notion and Wareham conceded that although there was “a seriousness and intensity” to what they did, they were surprised by their success – “it wasn’t quite what we expected”. Yang describes putting their unfinished material in Kramer’s hands during the making of Today (“We let him do whatever he wanted to do, which, when we began, was just what we needed.”) and finding New York Noise crumbling apart by the time they were ready to record This Is Our Music (“It was only 15-track because the 16th track on the board was broken by then”). What is interesting about the chronological presentation of the DVD is being able to look for this point of change. If it’s visible, the shift isn’t easily described. From the quiet high school gym to the drunk crowd at The Point, there’s something wonderfully off-kilter about all of it. Wareham agrees: “I'm proud of the records we made. I think they have aged well, perhaps because we were out of step with what was going on at the time.” In truth, they’re still out of step, and for this reason Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste (1987-1991) is an act of bravery on the part of the band. They lift the curtain to allow us a peek behind the scenes, an extended series of straight-on glances. Four hours of footage later and I’m not much closer to figuring out what made such a simple sound so perfect, but I can always go back and look again.

By Nathan Hogan

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