Love in the Time of Cirrhosis: How Son Volt’s “Windfall” Crushed One Love and Sparked Another by Nick Hartman
Son Volt’s “Windfall” revolutionized my taste in music.
That wasn’t easy in 1995. Nihilism and grunge ruled the day. From Generation X’s perspective, everyone and everything was fucked. But somewhere between the omnipresent drone of Nirvana, clove cigarettes, and pocket Camus readers, a total stranger introduced me to a genre of music that would become my personal soundtrack.
Unfortunately, I wanted to punch this guy in the face.
I had my reasons.
Most revolved around losing my job and a tenuous relationship with a new girlfriend, Angeline. A mutual friend introduced us. Curly brown hair, beautiful legs, athletic, out-going and warm. And she drank like a man. You know, marriage material. She wanted to spend time together, and we did. But she wouldn’t think of having sex until I had been tested.
Eager to prove my commitment, I bounced into the county health clinic for what I thought would be a blood test. Instead, I found myself in an examination room with some male nurse. After he explained the assortment of medieval instruments on his stainless steel tray, he unexpectedly jammed a pipe cleaner into my dickhole so hard I expected him to reach for some cue chalk and yell “Stripes!”
If that wasn’t bad enough, not long afterward, I lost my job. I went from making $25 an hour as a media relations specialist with a large utility company to making $7 for small daily newspaper in the Inland Empire. I went from shopping for dress shirts at Structure in Montclair Plaza and $30 lunches during the week to informing my befuddled roommates that I wouldn’t have enough for rent the following month. So, for the next six months, I lived out of my ’91 Isuzu Rodeo during the week, occasionally parking and sleeping in orange groves around Redlands and showering at the local Family Fitness.
In retrospect, I spent three years trying to convince her and her family – and ultimately myself – that I was worth the investment. That’s a tough sell when you’re a homeless reporter making $7 an hour.
Most, if not all, of this had to do with why I wanted to punch this guy.
Angeline was working on a psychology degree at the time. Naturally, most of her friends were counselors-in-training. If you’ve never spent time around a group of mental health care majors, they’re like theater majors, only they don’t read. Sometimes they would study as a large group, but other times Angeline would study with one guy in particular, Tyler. This was some red flag shit for me. Was it insecurity on my part? The homeless reporter in me said yes.
After making the trek from Redlands to Fullerton one weekend, Angeline announced plans for a party. All of her school friends would be there, including Tyler. As I stacked salami and cheese on crackers, I fumed. At least as much as a guy making hors d’oeuvres could fume. I secretly pondered my order of operations. Would I punch him first or crush his hand and then punch in the face? Definitely a game-time decision.
When Tyler first walked into the apartment, my first thought was, ’He’s a goofy fucker.’ Sadly, this put me at ease. I exhaled, and in my mind, merged seamlessly onto the high road. He didn’t seem too bad. No over-earnest affect and didn’t say hello through clenched teeth. I could hang with this guy.
After some uninspired prattle, Tyler spied my CD tower and asked, “You ever heard Son Volt?”
I didn’t realize the profundity of this question. I can’t remember my response. It probably involved a long pull from a beer bottle, blithely removing whatever CD was playing, and putting in Hall and Oates’ “Rock and Soul, Part I.” That was always my way of saying, ’This party sucks and the only thing that can redeem it is the power of Hall and Oates.’ He told me about an album – “Trace.” I needed to check it out.
A couple days after our talk, I found myself at some music store in a 70s era strip mall in old Fullerton. Flipping through the ’S’ bin, I found Son Volt, and lo and behold, “Trace.” I flirted with several other titles, but nothing seemed right. As I shuffled between stacks of overpriced CDs, a single thought pulsed through my head: Was this guy making time with my girl? Why in the hell would I entertain his suggestion and pony up $15.99?
For reasons unknown, I left with “Trace.”
Angeline was at work when I returned home. After the obligatory 10 minutes of CD plastic removal, I slid the disc into the player. The opening acoustic guitar lick for “Windfall” rang out.
It’s everything I hated in one song. Fiddle. Pedal steel. This guy pulled the caper of the century. Not only did he maybe bone my girlfriend, he made me buy a CD I hated.
This was country music. And if there was one thing I hated, it was country music. It was my father’s music, which meant that it was my enemy. But halfway through this three minute song, tears rolled down my cheeks. For some reason, I felt permission to grieve. For what, I don’t really know. But Jay Farrar’s bloodshot benediction made me a believer.
“Both feet on the floor/Two hands on the wheel/May the wind take your troubles away.”
Maybe it wasn’t the best advice at the time. It reinforced the idea that with the right combination of gasoline and apathy I could outrun my problems. Farrar’s mournful incantations prepared me for the night, but never the morning after. His voice always rang through my head when I tried reclaiming some dignity by throwing on the wrinkled, smoky clothes from the night before and limping squint-eyed and hungover into the sunlight of some strange neighborhood.
While I’m sure we crossed paths again, I don’t remember any other conversation with Tyler. His suggestion shined a light directly at Uncle Tupelo and it’s other offspring, Wilco. These three bands remain familiar drinking partners.
The relationship? Well, that ended in a mushroom cloud of fear and self-loathing. After Angeline returned from an unannounced to trip to Europe (another episode of Memoir Mixtapes), we had breakfast at Mimi’s Cafe in Placentia. She confessed her desire to get married and start a family. I told her that I wasn’t done drinking yet and that if we got married that she would inherit a son, not gain a husband.
We drove back to the apartment and I started packing.
Tyler’s ghost even provided my relationship’s outro music. As I stuffed clothes into white trash bags, the chorus of Uncle Tupelo’s “Still Be Around” hit dead center: “When the Bible is a bottle/and a hardwood floor is home/when morning comes twice a day or not all/if I break in two, will you put me back together?/When this puzzle’s figured out/will you still be around?”
Nope. And I couldn’t blame her.
She eventually married and started a family. Unfortunately, my love affair with alt country came at the expense of someone I loved. But doesn’t it always?
And Tyler? I don’t know if he ever became a counselor. Don’t care. He gave me the one song, the one narrator, who took an assemblage of empty whisky bottles and gave my sadness a name and gave it flesh and bone. He unwittingly accounted for half of my music catalogue over the years. That’s worth more than any degree. And if I saw him today, I’d still crush his hand, but I’d give him a big hug and thank him for figuring me out a long time ago.
About the Author:
Nick Hartman plays bass for Ghosts in Pocket. He loves diner coffee, omelettes, and futurism.