Katie here, and excited to tell you about the next band we’re announcing— Marcy Playground. A lot of the music I love dearly, everyone else knows the single: for example, I have considered getting a shirt made that says, “‘Flagpole Sitta’ is by Harvey Danger, and the chorus is, ‘I’m not sick but I’m not well,’” just so I don’t have to explain that anymore. But with Marcy Playground, they’ve done me a huge favor— their first, gigantic breakthrough single, a song we all know and will easily sing along with together in October, is “Sex and Candy.”
I know. Now the question is, “What on earth could possibly be better than ‘Sex and Candy’?” I have an answer for you later. (This is not an invitation to try that combination out at the Festival, by the way…) Marcy Playground is one of those bands who was both lucky to have a song that came out right at a time when the cultural landscape was ready to hear it— and unlucky, in that almost every music fan I know knows their other albums as well. They’re a band who has made several good records, and now, coming off the road with Local H and Everclear for the Summerland tour, songwriter John Wozniak and crew are tighter and more ready to perform than ever.
If I take my musical time machine back to 1997, one of the first things I learned from Marcy Playground was that the synesthesia I often experienced— in real life and slowly, more and more in my own writing— could be used to good effect. Lines like “there she was/ in platform double suede, yeah/ there she was/ like disco lemonade/ I smell sex and candy” could be very literal, but felt gauzy, like some kind of weird teenage insomnia. The idea that smells, sights, and sounds could all cross wires in your brain and turn into something vaguely sexy, dark, and confusing— that was exciting. It is exciting. The reason we all still know and talk about “Sex and Candy” and not, say, Sugar Ray’s “Fly,” which had the longest number one streak on the charts in 1997, is because despite the fact that we could all sing every word to that song as well, it wasn’t a puzzle. It didn’t put us all in a completely different fuzzy room, waiting to try and figure out what sex and candy meant to us. And it certainly didn’t invite us to all explore the space between the lyrics contrasted with the darkness in the music and the deadpan delivery. “Fly” was fun to scream, sure: but “Sex and Candy” prevailed because it had something that delved further into the music lover’s consciousness.
Which is why, even if you never heard another song from them, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that every record they’ve put out since their incredibly diverse self-titled debut (mixing post-grunge, rock, pop, and some folk music) has been at least as good, and often better than that first effort. (Though I still have an incredible soft spot for “The Vampires of New York,” which felt so urgent despite so many of the major chords: “Come lose your mind in Central Park/ But don’t leave your soul behind/ Come take in 8th Street after dark/ ‘Such peculiar people,’ you’ll remark/ You might even see a murder.”) By the end of that song, we’ve definitely seen a murder— or maybe she’s “just gone to Mars”— there’s some of the glam-Bowie influence, covering up the earlier panic of, “‘I think she’s dying’ and ‘oh, oh Lord, I think she’s dying,’”.
For instance, their most recent full length record of original material that isn’t delving into the B-sides and special songs that had been secret handshakes among long-term fans (every band with a cult following has this kind of collection— songs that somehow got leaked and fans use those titles and lyrics to separate out true fans from regular ones… we hope you’ll drop any of that pretense at the Festival. We all pretty much like everything).
In 2009, the band released, Leaving Wonderland… in a fit of rage, and it is a beautiful combination of gorgeous folk and soul guitar strung together with risk-taking vocals and a rock sensibility borrowed from artists as vastly different at Jimi Hendrix and the vast psychedelia of Pink Floyd. The single, “Devil Woman,” has an incredible acoustic guitar between lines that makes it feel like listening to an old CSNY record, but songs like “I Burned the Bed” feel like if Neil Young had hired Soundgarden as his touring band. I’m always partial to finding a way to use fire as a metaphor because it means both destruction and cleansing, and while Wozniak absolutely uses that to his advantage, he also uses the hard guitar to hammer home that he’s literally wanting to burn something down.
This bed is tear stained, yeah
And you lit a fire of no return
So I warm my bones and watch it burn
Burn, delivering my soul
And I’m free from your mind control
Yes, I’m free from you mind control
I watch it burn to the ground
There is a musical and vocal shift towards softness when he admits, “I see ashes where we made love, where I held you near, where I gave you my soul…” but it is immediately echoed with that same heavy, heavy, “Burning, burn, delivering my soul.” It’s incredibly powerful— the way a memory might tenderly pop into your mind, just for a moment, and then you remember what you are there to do: burn this to the ground. Take no hostages. Raze your brain of these beautiful moments so that something fertile might grow there again.
The complicated guitar line on “Memphis” is so beautiful and captivating that I find myself hitting repeat often. I went back recently and realized I’d had it on playlists I’ve been for years— where there were no other repeats. Country playlist? It fits. Alt-country? Fits. I need something peaceful, to quiet my brain down? It fits. To engage me in a story so that I don’t sit and worry about my own problems? You get the point. This song is one that— and I rarely use this word for a song, though I’ve had the pleasure of doing so for musicians several times with this festival— absolutely perfect. The lyrics are simple and all repeated:
I am going down the long lonesome road to Memphis
And I have come from the valley of the damned to Memphis
My love has gone with the devil to the well of poison
But I declare I drink my fill from that well of poison
The lord's gonna save my soul
Somewhere in the hills of Memphis
And the lord's gonna rest my bones
Somewhere in the hills of Memphis
It could easily be a blues song from the 1920s with lyrics like those. It could be a song from Uncle Tupelo. It could be something Jason Isbell sang last year.
But guys. It WASN’T. It was a song written by Marcy Playground, yes, “Sex and Candy” Marcy Playground. Best of all, it feels like they recorded it sitting around a fire pit so we could all be in this weird little perfect moment together, take guitar like sacrament, share food and campgrounds, tell ghost stories, talk about the way we sometimes think we can smell the devil or hear the breath of God, and listen to Wozniak sing softly and vulnerably while still delivering heavy-hitting, fascinating lyrics.