It's been a rigorous several days for everyone here; the kids are sick, the heat doesn't seem to be working in our apartment, I'm still unsettled in my job search and there are some frustrating logistics to be worked out regarding the kids' schooling. In an effort to get back into a regimen of fitness and sanity, my wife has started doing laps around nearby Washington Square Park in the early evenings, once we've managed to wrestle the kids to sleep. She's only been doing it for a couple of weeks now, but she cannot stop singing its praises as a revitalizing, head-clearing exercise. So after a particularly trying day earlier this week, I followed suit went out for a late night walk around Washington Square Park in the cold Autumn air.
Not really in the mood for any of the skull-cracking, gale-force rock that I usually pine for, I selected a quiet old favorite album on my iPod, ripe for mellow, near-somnambulistic contemplation. I'd first heard On Fire by the Boston trio, Galaxie 500 back in 1989 when I was interning at SPIN. I'd found it in a cache of discarded cassettes and took it home. I didn't know a great deal about the band, but in every blurb I'd read about them, there was an inevitable allusion to The Velvet Underground. Having gone through a serious Velvets phase in college only a year or so earlier, I was curious to see how Galaxie 500 measured up.
The Velvet influence was indeed undeniable -- especially on the jamming "When Will You Come Home" -- although Galaxie 500 exuded a more languid approach (not entirely unlike The Cowboy Junkies' hushed rendering of the Velvets' "Sweet Jane" from a year or so earlier). Listening to On Fire was sonically akin to slowly climbing into a hot bath. Everything sounded warm, comfortable and intimate. And despite being Bostonians, this band positively hemorrhaged a hip, downtown NYC vibe which, of course, immediately appealed to me.
Not long after leaving SPIN, I started working as a gallery sitter in Soho at the 55 Mercer Street Gallery, and my cassette of On Fire went into regular rotation on the boom box I usually brought with me. Galaxie 500's quiet aesthetic made for the perfect soundtrack by being atmospheric but ultimately unobtrusive. When the gallery was empty --- which was most of the time -- Dean Wareham's simmering guitars filled up the echoey expanse of the rooms perfectly. I'll never be able to hear songs like "Blue Thunder" or "Snowstorm" without thinking of those long, quiet days on Mercer Street
Almost twenty years later, I'm walking around a dark, empty Washington Square Park with these songs drifting back into my ears, conjuring those same images. The track I'm highlighting here, meanwhile, wasn't actually on the On Fire LP, but from the "Blue Thunder" e.p. (later appended to the compact disc of On Fire). Galaxie 500's rendering of "Ceremony" is that rarest of songs -- a cover version that surpasses the original. Ostensibly a Joy Division song (it first appeared on the posthumously released Still compilation -- and the band later re-recorded it in single format as New Order), the original versions boast that band's signature brittle melancholy, but are still propelled by a tightly-wound, almost mechanical pulse. In Galaxie 500's hands, meanwhile, the song becomes a lulling, painterly strum, slowed down to a sleepier but equally elegiac pace. I first heard it via a Rough Trade sampler cassette and was completely blown away that someone had actually bettered a Joy Division track. Despite being a cover version, it is to my mind this band at its very best.
Galaxie 500 broke up, of course. They all do. Dean Wareham went onto form the much more successful (and much more conventional) Luna. The remainder of the trio, Damon Krukowsi and Naomi Yang continued as a duo, and further pursued the dreamy sound they birthed with Galaxie 500 (in this capacity, I'd strongly recommend their album Damon & Naomi with Ghost, recorded with the suitably enigmatic Japanese guitarist named in the title). Galaxie 500 have since been cited as progenitors of their own genre, the so-called "Slowcore" movement. At the end of the day, that stuff doesn't really interest me. Labels and tags aside, I can only speak for how this music affected me. I'll leave it to the indie rock snobs to categorize Galaxie 500.
But "Ceremony" came on my headphones in all its quiet, slow-building luster during that shadowy walk around Washington Square Park and my mood immediately improved. This song just emanates such a sense of warmth for me. It's the perfect song for nights indoors when the snow is falling outside your window. Tranquil. Stately. Languid.
Drown in it.