Everyone is, everything is broken
Why can’t you forget ? Why can’t you forget ?
- Radiohead, “Planet Telex”
I didn’t hear The Bends, Radiohead’s second album, until 1998, when I received it as a 24th birthday present, along with OK Computer, which is the album that made me look around the year before and wonder what this thing called Radiohead was about. So much of what the nineties became for me had to do with drifting and aimlessness: I had dropped out of high school in 1993, and gotten a job at a local library. I started college in 1995, still working. I had vague and grandiose dreams: I wanted to be a writer, but had only written papers for school. In 1996, I fell in love with film studies, and saw myself (or another, more interesting version of myself) as a film scholar and a critic. The music that filtered back to me in those years didn’t speak to me: I felt like grunge and riot grrrl were too angry for me, because I was scared of the anger I already had, and that I pretended didn’t exist. The college rock/alternative station that I had listened to throughout my adolescence was losing its enchantment: I didn’t care about the battle between Blur and Oasis; I don’t remember ever hearing “Creep” on the radio, or anywhere else, although I read years later that Thom Yorke almost drowned in a pool during a performance at MTV’s annual Spring Break.
I was perfect for what Radiohead was trying to tell the world. It just took me longer to find them. The Bends is an extraordinary transitional album: it sounds exactly like its time (the midpoint of the nineties), and out of its time, too; an album that twenty years later still retains its desolation and instrumental pyrotechnics. If they had continued in the vein of Pablo Honey, they might have gotten a few albums in, had followers, and then maybe gotten bored or sick of their sound, and stopped. There is young adult, fashionable alienation on The Bends (“I wish it was the sixties / I wish I could be happy / I wish, I wish I wish that something would happen”) but there is also the pain of living with oneself, and with the world there, too, that goes beyond “I don’t know how to fit in (and I don’t want to),” to the weight of fear and existing in a place that’s going to be a dystopia much faster than anyone could have foreseen. If OK Computer shows us the internal effects of that landscape in full, then The Bends gives us glimpses; ragged messages and calls for help:
I call up my friend the good angel
But she’s out with her answerphone
She said that she’d love to come help
the sea would electrocute us all
Yorke’s voice sneers and mourns through The Bends. He condemns the popularity of his own creation, “Creep,” and its consumers, too, in “My Iron Lung,” and I think what drew me to this album then and, to a lesser extent, now, is the attitude of fuck off or fight me. I don’t care. But if that roiling anger is there, then the bottomless sadness is there, too, and it’s unfeigned:
If I could be who you wanted
If I could be who you wanted
all the time. All the time.
I understand, up to a point, why there’s a nineties nostalgia going on now. People see some kind of freedom there, or better music, or a dream of progression. The gaudiness of the eighties had been stripped away for some sort of authenticity that became a commodity itself, and The Bends asks, Do you want to be pissed off or sad about it? Is one just a shade of the other? I wasn’t asking myself these questions when I was listening to it at twenty-four. I was trying to build a wall out of scraps of movies and books and music to keep all of that out. I let other people feel all of the things that I desperately did not want to feel: Rage. Loneliness. Joy.
Joy still remains tricky for me. I have to work at it. There are moments when I see it in the video for “Just,” with Jonny Greenwood making love to his guitar and upping the ante for the rest of the band, and Yorke spinning out his own moves in a too-small room while the rest of the world ends, or holding a book that I wrote in my hands, still wondering how I managed to do that. The Bends showed me a way out in 1998. It still does.