Of course, it’s never been totally uncommon for artists to recontextualize outside source material for song lyrics. On Hootenanny, Paul Westerberg used classified ads as the source material for “Lovelines” and Michael Stipe randomly quoted the liner notes of a gospel album for the much-beloved “Voice of Harold” b-side.
And so when Scott Oliver used excerpts from a letter that Andrea wrote him when she was at Sarah Lawrence, he may or may not have been thinking about these antecedents, or he may have just wanted something that fit the melancholy waltz that he and his band had come up with.
A waltz that is still one of my very favorite Miss Alans songs.
I know it seems ludicrous during a time when every week packs a year’s worth of crazy into each week, but for our little social circle — who imagined ourselves world-weary when none of us were even a quarter-century old — the last few months of 1987 seemed to be spiraling out of control. So many events were piling on top of each other — mostly involving sex, drugs, music, alcohol, school and work — that it became a running joke that the world was going to end on January 2, 1988.
Of course, like all jokes born from a combination of too much booze and too much R.E.M., we made sure that our arbitrary end of the world date was after New Years Eve, because we wanted to live it up for one last wild New Years Eve at the Olympic Tavern.
This was the second of the Miss Alans New Years Eve shows at the Oly. The first year, as 1986 came crashing into 1987, featured hardcore legends Capitol Punishment under an assumed name — the Miss Alans and CP shared a pair of rehearsal spaces, one in Clovis and another on Belmont — and Allan Spaulding as openers, as well as a poster that had become instantly iconic in our social circle.
I don’t remember who opened New Year’s Eve 1987: I’m pretty sure my own intake of various substances started with Blackbird Stories band practice that afternoon, and didn’t let up until at some point during the post-show after party deep into the wee hours of the morning.
Had New Years Eve 1987 been depicted in a Friends episode, it would have been called “The One With All Of The Bullets,” and it would have never gotten past the censors.
But what I remember the most from the whole evening was dancing to “Westchester, NY,” perhaps the one oasis of calm during the entire chaotic evening. At that time, while not every Miss Alans song in their live repertoire was a dance-oriented uptempo, a whole bunch of them were, and even more so while it may or may not have been the live debut of the song, it was still pretty damn fresh.
I sat down and wrote you
But it wasn’t quite a letter
You know what today is?
Scott’s acoustic guitar is carrying the brunt of the rhythm at the opening, while Manny Diez is hovering at the edges of the song, and slowly, here comes Jay supporting on bass and Ron Woods tapping out 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 on his hi-hat and the tambourine he always had mounted on his kit.
And it’s New Years Eve, and we’re young and we’re high and we’re perfect and we’re indestructible and we’re all dancing: 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3. Dancing in and around each other: friends, lovers, strangers, it didn’t matter because this moment was all that we had and all we were ever going to have and it was totally and completely transcendent and was going to last forever.
The world didn’t end on January 2, 1988 (that I know of), but everything else did, eventually. Because 1988.
So suddenly, it was much later, and the world was completely different than it had been, because nothing lasts forever, especially when you’re that young. The Miss Alans spent a lot of 1988 in the studio, recording song after song after song for the follow-up to Bus. And one of those songs was “Westchester, NY,” and when I get a tape it’s pretty much how I remember it 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3.
There’s isn’t a chorus on “Westchester, NY.” Instead, Manny’s guitar starts waltzing around the waltz like an infinity loop until they all crash concurrently creating controlled chaos while Manny’s guitar is now skyrocketing over the horizon and back again 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3.
And there right beside me was an old couple
I imagined they’d been married for years and years
Start complaining about
The death of a daughter like youth
Like the dye in her hair, sat a little old man
Just complaining again
Said stop your complaining
As Scott starts singing the verse about the old couple that Andrea had overheard having an argument, a lone banjo came in, just completely out of nowhere. It hadn’t been there earlier, and soon got swallowed up by Manny’s guitar swells. And it was fucking awesome. Totally unexpected, and adding just the right amount of color.
When they were kids, Jay Fung and his brother, Robbie, used to play the banjo professionally. And someone had the idea to vary up the sound with a banjo, and despite his reservations — banjo? really? not to mention they didn’t have the right kind of banjo around — he took a shot, and it turned out exquisitely.
While a lot of the songs from that period aren’t as good as what came before or the utter awesomeness that was just around the corner, I think that “Westchester, NY” stands with any of them.
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