Blah. Boredom. Block. Ennui. Uninspiration. Even way back, when the pioneers of fire and the wheel did their victory laps through the sub-Saharan plains, some shaggy primate sat nearby, tinkering listlessly with limp sticks and dull stones. It’s not that he was a stupid or lazy primate, not that he’d never had an idea. Remember the spear? That was his. But some time had passed, and the distance now throbbed between that bracing gust of creation and this clammy spell of inertia.
To be blah is to be human, as inevitable as weather. But to paraphrase J.D. Salinger, poets take the weather personally. We are all (if we read books, watch movies, or listen to songs) to some extent beholden to moody creative types who chase muses around, and when those muses give them the slip, we all suffer. One modern aesthetic response to the powerful undertow of Blah is to let it swallow us, to make art that is aloof to inspiration, beauty, organization, or sense. But negation feels like an easy out, which is why I dislike a lot of the art of Rothko and Mondrian and why Matt Meade hates Pavement. A casual sneer at the whole business may be cool and attractive, especially in the young, but sticking out the doldrums of life and art with some form of affirmation intact seems like harder and more important work.
Which brings me to a forgotten single by a short-lived nineties band. You can do the wiki-work on Sammy if you care, but suffice it to say their recording career was a blip (two albums and an EP, 1994-1996) and their legacy is a handful of reminiscences in blogs like this one. Reviewers compared them most often with Pavement, citing crunching chords and phlegmatic vocals. But what I hear in “Neptune Ave./Ortho Hi Rise” goes well beyond faddish irony; there’s a passionate pining here, a plea for inspiration that got under my skin when I first heard the song, and has made it part of the soundtrack to my own hungry wanderings since. Jesse Hartman sings directly to his creation, wishing she were more than “a sketch in my book,” “more than a character on the page.” By the third verse, the longing is tangible in the windy silence that follows clipped lines:
I wish you were real
I wish you could talk
I wish you could feel
I wish you could walk me
down Neptune Avenue
show me the town
tell every story
to this history hound
At the most adolescent level, the song is a kind of power-pop Weird Science: Boy watches his Dream Girl step out of imagination and into flesh. But as a writer who daily chases the creative dragon, I read the Rorschach differently. I see this as a song not about longings of the flesh but those of the spirit, and amid a final urgent shift in key and cadence, the lyrics seem to back me up:
Whatever happened to you on this beach?
Whatever happened to you in that bar?
Whatever happened to you on this street?
Whatever happened to your old guitar?
This singer, who stalks the dusky corners of Coney Island and Great Neck with seemingly all the time in the world, isn’t after a girl after all — he’s after a story. He wants that girl in his notebook to come to life just long enough to give him the next fix of fiction.
A love song to imagination itself. Though Sammy didn’t see the 21st century, they left us a little gem to help us survive it.