(Part 8 of an ongoing series)
It was October 1998, not long into my senior year of high school, and I was smack in the middle of another one of my Big Blue Funks. Most of my closest friends had graduated high school the previous June and had since gone off to college hundreds of miles away from my suburban Long Island home. One of those friends had also become my girlfriend over the summer, and because I was 17, I had already fallen deeply in love with her forever and ever and ever.
We tried to stay together after she went to college in Washington, D.C., but by October she had come to her senses. She realized that keeping our long-distance relationship going was too painful and too impractical and not very fair to either of us, even though I foolishly begged to differ, again and again and again, to no avail.
Sure, I had other very cool friends who were still in high school with me. And I had several other blessings I mostly took for granted- supportive parents, a nice house, a loyal Golden Retriever. Yet the break-up of my 4-month romantic relationship still had me moping around everywhere like my name was Charlie Brown.
Then one late-afternoon I was watching MTV2, and something wonderful, magical, and life-altering happened: I saw the video for The Eels’ “Last Stop: This Town,” from their then-new album Electro-Shock Blues. I immediately fell in love with it- the video, sure, with its funny little carrot-headed cyborg, but mostly I fell for the song. Musically, it had an irresistible mix of sublime hooks and Dust Brothers hip-hop textures, and emotionally it hit me in a way that no other song had ever really hit me before. Not that I necessarily realized immediately what part of me the song had hit- all I knew was I had to hear “Last Stop: This Town” at least a squillion more times. After seeing the video for the first time, I kept watching MTV2 until they re-ran it (probably only like an hour later- back then they basically played a dozen different videos each month) and I videotaped it. Then on my next weekly-or-so visit to Tower Records, I picked up Electro-Shock Blues.
I spent much of October and November 1998 driving around the suburbs, alone except for Electro-Shock Blues in the CD player. It was the perfect soundtrack for my suicidal teenage autumn. I listened to the entire album a bunch of times, but far more often I’d just listen to “Last Stop: This Town” on repeat, enjoying the delicious pop sounds but also trying to get to the bottom of what I thought the song was saying to me. Before, I had heard songs that made me feel things, but those feelings were pretty simple and one-dimensional: Anger, joy, sadness, love (or rather, what I imagined love felt like for grown-ups). “Last Stop: This Town,” however, made me feel something more complex, unfamiliar, and fascinating.
To this day, I can still think of songs that are happier than “Last Stop: This Town,” and I can think of songs that are sadder, but I can’t readily think of any songs that are so happy and so sad all at the same time. This is evident from the very beginning of the song- after 3 measures of a jaunty, carnivalesque harpsichord-like music box riff, frontman Mark Oliver Everett says in his trademark mopey sing-speak: “You’re dead/ but the world keeps spinning.” Like, shit happens, but life goes on, and you can always find a merry-go-round somewhere. Then, “It’s getting dark/ a little too early,” as it tends to start to do in the fall, often before you’re fully accustomed to the sad fact that there’s gonna be a lot less sun for the next few months.
Throughout the track’s 3 minutes and 27 seconds, there’s a fierce tug-of-war between melancholy and glee. Everett keeps singing that he’s “gonna fly on down for the last stop to this town,” and it’s not hard to think that maybe he’s talking about the last stop of death. But he says it in a cartoonishly deep voice that’s even harder not to smile at. He keeps trying to mourn (and in the context of the rest of Electro-Shock Blues, he’s been mourning for something like 25 minutes already), but those peppy riffs and all those ‘Yeah!s’ keep shoving him toward utter bliss until continuing to wallow in misery feels like little more than an exercise in futility.
After hundreds of spins, I think I finally got the invaluable lesson I thought “Last Stop: This Town” was trying to tell me. (I haven’t always been the quickest to pick up on certain life lessons.) There’s something immensely triumphant in surviving grief, whether your problems are just a minuscule mound of muffin crumbs, or a horrible heap of tragedy, like losing your sister to suicide and your mother to cancer within a span of about 2 years. It took me until well after Thanksgiving of 1998 before I got over my little problems…and no doubt I’ve gotten myself into plenty more Big Blue Funks since then, and probably will again a few more times down the road. But with a little help from this song- probably my most favorite song ever- I know I’ll always have at least one more triumph to look forward to.
Approx. 3 minutes, 27 seconds; 7,884 minutes, 25 seconds left on the iPod