In 1991, at loose ends with both my work and my social life, I decided to spend the summer in San Francisco. (It didn’t quite work out that way, as will be covered whenever we get to the Yo La Tengo entry.) My friend Pete, who I’d met the previous summer when we worked together proofreading liner notes at CBS Records, celebrated the occasion by making for me a mixtape of all the post-punk bands he’d spent the previous decade listening to, while I was off gorging on the likes of Talking Heads and R.E.M. (It was one of the many phases of my life where I was about 5-10 years behind the musical curve.) The tape’s title: “Music for Neil’s Trip.”
The selection was heavy on tracks from bands like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, who I otherwise knew of only from their occasional appearances on the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop music poll. He also included a pair of songs from some band called the Feelies, who were apparently also supposed to be part of my catchup canon. Pete being Pete, however, he had inscrutably chosen two songs that, I was later to discover, weren’t entirely representative of the Feelies songbook: “The Last Roundup” and “Two Rooms,” a pair of songs off their 1986 album The Good Earth that, coupled with the cassette transfer quality, gave me the impression that the Feelies were a semi-lo-fi group that made droney jangly songs with mumbly vocals. I filed away the name for future reference, but even as I picked up Flip Your Wig and Tim on Pete’s recommendation, I didn’t rush out to buy any Feelies records, something that became easy as over time most of them slipped out of print on CD.
Jump ahead to 2008. The Feelies had long since gone on indefinite hiatus after co-guitarist/co-vocalist/co-songwriter Glenn Mercer famously called his counterpart Bill Million at his day job at a video store and was told, “He’s not here, he moved to Florida.” But now, Sonic Youth were playing a free July 4th show in Battery Park, and had invited the Feelies to reunite to open for them. I already liked Sonic Youth and summer outdoor shows, and the chance to see this dim ghost from the past with my own eyes was a can’t-miss opportunity.
I think everyone who saw that show would agree that it was not the Feelies at their live best: They hadn’t played much together for a while, and more to the point, it was broad daylight under the open sky, and they thrived in enclosed, intimate spaces such as Maxwell’s where everyone’s focus was fixed on the stage. Never having seen them before, I didn’t care: There they were, looking only slightly grayer and more frizzy-haired than the band I’d seen on snippets of video from the ’80s, driving through song after song of concise, hooky, subtly offbeat music with what I would eventually come to know as their trademark precision abandon. For me, it was all encapsulated by percussionist Dave Weckerman, who sat in the back left with an assortment of drums, shakers, and other assorted objects and played them with an otherworldly concentration — watching a man play a wood block as if the fate of the universe depended on it was transfixing, and utterly characteristic of the Feelies’ self-appointed mission: to make the best music that possibly could be made, every time.
That show ultimately led to a full Feelies reunion, with the band releasing one album that picked up right where they’d left off in the early ’90s (Here Before) and currently working on another, while playing the occasional show, mostly in the New York/New Jersey area. They are one of the few bands I will never miss, no matter what. Part of it is because you never know what new wonders a Feelies show will bring: five separate encores, an unexpected Velvet Underground or Neil Young or R.E.M. cover, or that one night when the pipe that Weckerman was intently drumming on for the band’s idiosyncratic take on the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey” slipped off the rack it was hanging from, and a roadie had to hold it in place by hand while Weckerman kept going, barely missing a beat. (You can catch a glimpse of it around the 2:30 mark on this video shot by Joe Angio.) But mostly, it’s because there is no one on earth quite like the Feelies — though it’s a standard that the rest of us can strive for.