Hello— my name is Katie, and I’ll be honest, I think I’m living in some kind of weird fan-fiction that I wrote about myself when I was young. (Someone please cue up Big Star? Just strum that sweet acoustic “Thirteen” intro?) When I was in high school, I remember having a discman that clipped to my belt loops so that I could ride my bike and keep a CD going at all times. I’d ride my bike from our bright, shiny development, still barely a decade old, across the street to the aged neighborhood which was covered in trees and shadows, so I could escape the Texas heat and listen— really listen— to my favorite bands, one of which was and will always be Harvey Danger.
Sean Nelson (formerly of Harvey Danger, the Long Winters, and in liner notes on records you absolutely wouldn’t believe) is playing Underwater Sunshine Fest.
Before I ever knew I would write for a music festival— teach a class about music— meet my idols— write a blog— I was just a bookish kid in a back brace with a big Texas attitude and absolutely nothing in my 4’11” frame to back it up. I know TV and movies make being a nerd with prosthetics look really cool, but in my case, you’ll be shocked to hear I found those things to be slight impediments toward being “cool” and making “friends.” I never felt lonely or bored though, especially out on those bike rides, because I had too much to think about. I was already an obsessive reader and I memorized music and lyrics like it was a job (that’s just how I roll). The first record I remember knowing every single word to— from the first line of “Carlotta Valdez” to the last line of “Radio Silence”— was Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? And you know Merrymakers, too. Here. Let me remind you.
I’m not going to say much about “Flagpole Sitta” because we all know it— but I’d like to say, first of all, that it and the rest of the record circle around Moby Dick… well… obsessively. (Though the record references Hemingway and Faulkner in sleight of hand lyrics, as well.) In fact, the chorus is from a famous scene in the book. When we saw Sean play a few months ago at the Crying Wolf in Nashville, he sang a pretty great variation on the line about not owning a TV, and the whole room cracked up. And finally— this is a bass driven song. I have seen so many bar bands absolutely mystified by why they couldn’t quite figure the sound out.
But the fact that I need to tell you those things— about a song you know every word to— shows you something strange about me, about my connection to these songs. I am protective of Nelson’s writing and his legacy. He’s one of the best living songwriters, and usually I omit the word “living” because he’s just one of the best. He’s also, I’ve recently learned, one of the best performers. We’ve had the incredible fortune of being able to see him twice this fall— once in a very surreal setting, an almost-basement in the back of a restaurant, standing next to Robyn Hitchcock, and next, when I’d already bought tickets to see Steven Page at the City Winery and Sean wound up opening. Both times were outrageously good. At the beginning of both shows he played a forthcoming song, “All Time Low,” and after the first verse at the first show, Andy leaned over and said to me, “Oh, I get it— he’s just the best.” The verse in question?
They say there are no second acts, just falls and bilious attacks
There’s what you want, and what you want to want, and what you’ll settle for
Would it trouble you to know that I was high the night we stayed up late
And said how great it felt to finally be able to communicate again
Like in the old days, now that I’m not getting high anymore…?
Well then, you’re gonna love this one.
FIRST. LINES. In both settings, he immediately had the audience enraptured. He can play with a full band or just a guitarist and loops— the second he begins to sing and tell you stories, you’re on the hook. Because here’s the thing: he can start a song like that, but that’s not really the takeaway. He introduced it as a song about suicidal ideation, but in a way that elicited laughter from the room— and then in the last verse, he makes good on that promise. Of course, even then, he’s not going to allow you to get off easy: one of my all-time favorite lines is in the stanza he was referring to— “Your suffering lacks grandeur, but it’s suffering anyway.”
His live shows are part stand-up comedy, part brilliant showmanship, and part outrageous, gorgeous vocals. The guitarist and producer Sean’s been working with since he retired from being the editor for Seattle’s newspaper The Stranger and moved back to Nashville, Shane Tutmarc, has helped shape some of the forthcoming work in an atmospheric way, but one that leaves obvious space for the lyrics and the vocal performance to shine.
But Sean has an incredible vocal range, something between Broadway and vaudeville: his control is amazing. He sang one of my favorite Harry Nilsson songs at City Winery (he’s just released a record called Nelson Sings Nilsson that is only streaming, but is on Spotify, iTunes, and Bandcamp), “Maybe,” and there’s a line I jokingly call a false ending, because he winds up and knocks it out of the park… but when the person sitting next to me said, “Wow,” with big eyes, I held up one finger. Not yet. Because I knew he was going to wail the ending home: “Baby, if you don’t believe me/ Laugh at me, but please don’t leave me!” It is almost painful, the edge his voice takes on in a scream.
Old Harvey Danger songs like “The Same As Being In Love,” “Why I’m Lonely,” “Little Round Mirrors,” and especially “Terminal Annex” were clipped to my belt loop for years while I thought about the lyrics. You get moments like, “When you base your whole identity/ On a reaction against somebody/ It’s the same as being/ I tend to forget when I drink/ I’m doing it again I think”— or “And it’s absolutely clear to me that solitude is not the same as singularity/ But that’s not why I’m lonely.” Or, hey, years later, they weren’t clipped to my belt loop anymore. They were streaming out of the bluetooth speaker in my hospital room post-stroke while I listened to the song that gave me a language and a road map for interpreting my own anxieties and emotions long before I knew I needed one: God knows, I listened to “Terminal Annex” again.
Here’s something beautiful now smash it to bits
Save your little wheelchair empowerment films
Save your spoons I’m spoken for
It isn’t pretty to think so, but I can’t feign interest now
Dreaming of the fistfight I never got into
Thinking of all the mean shit I wish I’d said to you
Sometimes letting someone else’s seething and anxiety help you with yours is the safest way to learn how to become an adult. For what it’s worth, I think growing up is usually a combination of a few things— our family, our trauma, and the art we choose. I very intentionally chose to grow up with Harvey Danger and Sean Nelson. His sense of humor, irony, and presentation has formed a huge part of my sense of humor (goofy with a side of nihilism), irony (lines like “we hadn’t worked in a year/ we prayed the checks would all clear/ I got another eviction notice/ you got a brilliant career” counterintuitively makes me laugh when everything’s gone wrong), and presentation (my students will tell you: I go big or go home). I could write all day.
There are two more things I want to leave you with. First, the first song of his first solo record, Make Good Choices, is a constant favorite in my office. I am constantly hearing students who sound like they are at the end of their rope singing, “Nobody listens very much/ Or seems to want to touch you, when your body needs it most/ Nobody seems to make provisions/ For when their bad decisions come around and haunt them.” Every line in that song is gold. Also, I would really like to think that said students get the irony in the song. You get it, right guys? You don’t have to be a back braced kid on a bike, alone with their thoughts, to understand how funny it is?
And perhaps this will tantalize you even more: I can’t find a video, even just of a still picture, of the song Sean ended his City Winery set with: it’s called “Enough Already” (which, I’m sure, is what most people have to say to me at the end of an article I’ve written about Sean Nelson, though I’m going to include some brilliant things he’s written and a few places you can find me writing about him with more depth). It’s about, at first, the slings and arrows of a breakup, but as the song goes along, it finds the protagonist more grateful for the space and time occupied by the relationship, and the bridge, which is one of my favorite bits of writing on any record, might be a pretty good place to stop—
And then it’s a hazy memory you can amend and amend
And then it’s fiction: a lie that tells the truth and instead of proof
Just piles on contradiction
Well folks, that’s my job. I’m a creative writing professor— I’m the lie that tells the truth. The irony— and I told you I love that, didn’t I?— is I learned so much about the truth from listening to Harvey Danger and Sean Nelson. And the real truth is you absolutely can’t afford to miss his set. I know, because every time I leave one of his shows, I get a ton of messages asking what the set list was. And it never mattered— he could sing anything, and it would matter.
I know, I know. “Between the better I should know and debts of gratitude I owe, I’d better go. I’ve said enough already.”
AMAZING ARTICLES SEAN WROTE WHILE WORKING WITH The Stranger:
“I Had Never Touched a Gun Before the Las Vegas Massacre. Then I Bought One. A Liberal Snowflake Gets to Know Gun Culture from the Inside”— https://www.thestranger.com/features/2017/11/22/25575460/three-days-after-the-deadliest-shooting-in-modern-american-history-i-fired-a-handgun-for-the-first-time
“In Death as in Life, David Bowie Remains a Master of Self-Invention”— https://www.thestranger.com/blogs/slog/2016/01/11/23410041/in-death-as-in-life-david-bowie-remains-the-master-of-self-invention
OTHER PLACES I HAVE WRITTEN ABOUT SEAN:
“Bet You Don’t Know: Harvey Danger” — http://www.punchnels.com/2014/03/10/bet-you-dont-know-harvey-danger/
“Shouting Into the Voice: I Need You to Know Sean Nelson’s Make Good Choices”— https://entropymag.org/shouting-into-the-void-i-need-you-to-know-sean-nelsons-make-good-choices/