Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Michael Chabon recalls discovering the Pittsburgh band Carsickness.
I saw Carsickness play for the first time in the fall of 1980, somewhere on campus at Carnegie-Mellon University, where I was a freshman. I’d listened to their self-released EP, Police Dog, about a hundred and seven times by then, and I found their live show unaccountably stirring, because there was nothing that seemed likely to cause a stir about the five guys who made up the band. They had on jeans, T-shirts, sneakers. One of them wore a cardigan. A couple of the guys verged, particularly when it came to the way they wore their hair, on the unkempt, but most of them looked, frankly, a lot like CMU engineering students. None looked even remotely, in the fall of 1980, like punks.
This came very much as a relief to me, I remember. I was kind of afraid of punks, or at any rate I was going to be afraid of them, I believed, if I ever actually met any. They did not have punks in the suburban Maryland town where I’d grown up and bought my first Clash, Blondie, and The Jam records.
A dude on my dormitory hall (Donner A-Level West) introduced me to Carsickness’s music soon after we arrived at CMU. His name was John Fetkovich, but people called him Fetko, and he was the first, but by no means the last, ninth-level grandmaster of rock fandom I ever met. His knowledge was deep, wide, and intricately hyperlinked. He could steer you from the Velvet Underground to David Bowie to Uriah Heep to Pere Ubu to Patti Smith to Bruce Springsteen in one listening session without ever departing his zone of musical happiness. He was an engineering major, bespectacled, small of stature, generous with his knowledge and the record collection that dominated, milk crate by pilfered milk crate, every available corner of the Fetko half of his shared dorm room. In short order he managed to secure a slot on WRCT, the campus radio station, and in time became a vigorous champion of the bands that had begun to ooze and bubble up from dark subterranean seams all over America: Hüsker Du, X, Black Flag, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, et cetera. There was a certain air of Muppetry about Fetko: he spoke in brief, precise declaratives, with a Jim Henson gulp in his voice, bobbing his head for emphasis.
“If you like punk,” he had told me, soon—like, minutes—after we first met, “you should check out Carsickness.” He bobbed his head. “They’re from here, and they’re great.”
I went out and bought the aforementioned EP, a seven-inch with grainy, Xeroxed cover art. It had four songs, among them the local “hit” “Bill Wilkinson,” a takedown of a prominent white supremacist, with a slinking game-show organ and a radio-hostile, anti-fascist chorus. (“Whaddaya say / KKK, fuck you!”) As I said, I loved it. But did I like punk? And were Carsickness a punk band?
Even apart from their suspiciously clean-cut look—no mohawks, no safety pins, not much leather in evidence—there was the matter of their sound. A cursory listen yielded little in the way of the kind of blunt, buzzing, major-chord drums-bass-guitar attack, formulated by the Ramones and codified in the UK, that by 1980 had already become conventionalized as “punky.” Nor did the group embrace the ironic-nostalgic Sha-Na-Na-meets-Artaud pastiche vibe, Warhol’s glam drag queens filtered through the New York Dolls, that characterized the sound of many of the New York punk bands. Instead, Carsickness played songs that were rhythmically complicated, sonically adventurous, and instrumentally distinctive—saxophones! guitarists who could double on keyboards!—with their drummer Dennis Childers laying down tricky time signatures and the rest of the band managing very nicely, thank you, to keep up.
Their songs wandered in and out of genres, often in the course of a single track, and the band was not afraid, now and then, in their own spiky, frustrated way, to swing. At times Carsickness seemed, to my ear, to verge on jazz or even (could it be?) on prog. They made music as hyperlinked and omnivorous, as disrespectful of boundaries as the musical taste of John Fetkovich (or any ninth-level grandmaster of rock fandom). Their lyrics were fueled by righteous political anger, but their frontman, Joe Soap—a pseudonymous Irish immigrant, it was said, whose precarious status was reflected in another song on that EP, “Illegal Alien”—often sounded a lot like Joe Strummer at his most drunken: the plaintive, heartbroken Strummer of “The Right Profile” and the final thirty seconds of “Hate and War.”
In Pittsburgh, in 1980, they were playing a music that didn’t yet have—and would never really find—a name: post-punk.
In fact it might be argued that in their restlessness to move, musically if not politically, beyond the stupid-is-smart aesthetic of punk, Carsickness invented post-punk—in Pittsburgh. Just as Husker Du and Gang of Four and Mission of Burma and Sonic Youth were busy restlessly inventing it in Minneapolis, London, Boston, and New York. Just as, a few years later, bands in Pittsburgh that were made up of post-post-punks like me and my friends, kids who loved the Birthday Party and Wire but refused to stop listening to their Black Sabbath records, would spontaneously evolve a kind of heavy, heavy music that was called—as a Seattle-obsessed national media would in time inform us—“grunge.” (This is the moral of the story of Pittsburgh rock ’n’ roll, over and over again: if you want musical immortality, move somewhere else.)
I didn’t know, in the fall of 1980, that there was something called “post-punk.” But I could tell—anybody could—that Carsickness were moving in another direction. They had pulled up stakes and struck out for some hinterland beyond the kingdom of punk. Even thirty-five (good lord!) years later, you can still hear it in the songs on this record: the sound of five young men united, for a time, by a sense of adventure. The sound that stirred me, that fall day in Pittsburgh, the city where my own life’s adventure truly began. It’s the sound of my youth—and yours, whenever you were born, wherever you came of age, however you came into possession of the restlessness that is our common inheritance.
A version of this essay appears in the liner notes to Carsickness: 1979–1982, a compilation available now from Get Hip Records.
Michael Chabon’s most recent book is Moonglow.