What follows is the first in a series of essays we’re calling “Music That’s Changed My Life: GLONO Readers’ Real-Life Experiences.” These are stories that prove the whole concept of Glorious Noise: that rock and roll can indeed change your life. If you would like to share your tales of music’s effect on your world, get in touch with us…
Why I Love Shoes: A Rumination
I have been a fan of the Illinois band Shoes for going on twenty-five years. That seems like a long time, I know, but Shoes have been one of those bands that I forget about and periodically rediscover, as I am rediscovering them now.
I first encountered Shoes in the Fall of 1979. I was twelve. My 28-year-old brother, who was out of school, working, and had enough disposable income to purchase songs he just heard on the radio and liked, bought Present Tense, Shoes? promising major-label debut. He told me he thought they sounded like The Beatles. He had been tutoring me in the Beatles for a couple of years at that point; I could sing every word of every song on Rubber Soul by the time I was ten, and my twelfth birthday present was a trip to see Beatlemania Live. Given the fact that the popular music scene was still reeling from disco and featured bands like Journey and REO Speedwagon, immersing oneself in the sixties seemed the smartest thing to do.
I remember sitting on his bed in his apartment, where first he played The Beatles’ ?The Night Before.? The second song he played was ?Tomorrow Night,? and I made the incredibly boneheaded comment, ?anyone can sound like the Beatles if they cover the same songs.? Of course it wasn?t the same song at all, and yet I think in my naï¶¥té ‰ identified an undercurrent in their work which has continued to intrigue me and exert the magnetic pull responsible for my periodic rediscoveries.
Listened to as tribute, Shoes identify a specific element in mid-60?s pop which appeals to both my sense of melody and my sense of fun. One can hear the sensibilities of The Hollies, The Byrds, and specifically Revolver/Rubber Soul era Beatles under many songs. To me, the tribute is clearly distinct from what I consider directly derivative.
Derivative music reproduces without reconsidering, often note for note, without acknowledging the debt. Vanilla Ice?s hateful theft of the fabulous riff from the Bowie/Queen song ?Under Pressure,? claiming that he?s not because there?s a stray sixteenth note in there somewhere, is perhaps the most egregious example, but I?d also include (somewhat more controversially) the use of the bass line from ?Taxman? in The Jam?s ?Start??primarily because, in his younger days, Paul Weller was so snotty about the idea that he had been influenced by anyone. ?How can I be a fucking revivalist when I?m only nineteen years old?? he is reputed to have said. I like The Jam, but you have to know where your debts are.
It is true that The Beatles experienced one of their periodic resurgences in the late 70?s. The appalling (but kitschy) Robert Stigwood film of Sergeant Pepper?s Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, is a testament to that, a testament not unlike the greasy hamburger sandwich replacing the gazebo in the town square which is a central motif of the film. The aforementioned Beatlemania is another.
No, Shoes provided a different kind of tribute altogether, capturing the spirit of a movement in a new way, like William Butler Yeats recreating Romanticism fifty years after the fact. And they did more than that, creating a distinctive sound (punctuated by many sly sexual innuendoes) at the same time. Uncannily like and not like at the same time.
It?s funny, but given their structural role in my identity, I never knew much about the band at all, really. I do know that brothers John and Jeff Murphy formed the band in the early 70?s with their childhood friend Gary Klebe; when Klebe went to study in France, the Murphys made Un dans Versailles/One in Versailles as a gift to him. Apocryphally, Klebe was so bowled over he gave up any idea of having a grownup job and signed on for the ride.
Drummer Skip Meyer came aboard for 1976-77?s Black Vinyl Shoes. This album, somewhat legendary in DIY circles, was made in Jeff Murphy?s living room on a 4-track recorder, and contains all the lo-fi pops and buzzes recreated so painstakingly by more recent practitioners such as Dayton?s Guided by Voices. My own copy of Black Vinyl Shoes is scratched beyond repair, so I?m not entirely sure how it once sounded, but now, loved for a quarter of a century, the vocals feel as if they are coming from another dimension, while the guitars strike straight for the gut. Strange metaphors, to be sure, but I think they address the combination of ghostly and gutsy, of numinous and visceral, that?s at the heart of Shoes? charm.
Now might be as good a time as any to address my major complaint about Shoes, however. I?m not quite sure how to phrase this, and though it struck me at the time, it?s only recently I?ve been able to put into words the damage they may have done to me as a young woman. Women in many of Shoes? early songs embody every misogynistic archetype inherited from the medieval toolchest: distant goddesses, virginal and inaccessible, or rock-bottom bitches, cold and cruel. And the songs are primarily about the women and what they?ve done wrong, and only secondarily about the persona singing the song. (Take Jeff Murphy?s passive-aggressive ?Every Girl,? in which the thought that the narrator of the song himself might be at least partly responsible for repeated romantic failures is not even considered, or John Murphy?s ?Cruel You,? in which the narrator regrets that even pulling a gun on his beloved has failed to bring her to heel. Freudian indeed.) Because of this early indoctrination, I expected relationships to be vexed, difficult, resisted, or regretted. In fact, they were mostly pretty pleasant experiences, compared to what I?d been prepared for.
Shoes? brief flirtation with major label recording?and major-league success?was the period during which I encountered them, and during which I wrote them my first, barely literate, fan letter?the first (and one of very few) I ever wrote. I received a hand-written response from a friend of the band on shoe-themed stationery, pretty heady business for a quiet kid in a small town. (A recent scan of boxes of old crap failed to turn up said letter, but I found an alarming amount of other Shoes-themed material, including a valentine from 1983; not one, but two, fan club membership cards; and my own writing, ennobled today by the euphemistic term fan-fic, but which I would never have dreamed of showing to another soul.)
The album, as I?ve said, was Present Tense, and the singles ?Tomorrow Night? and ?Too Late? were minor radio hits. (I recently saw ?Too Late? on VH1 Classics, reminding myself just how gorgeous they were to me, and reducing me instantaneously to preteen status.) It looked, then, as if they were poised to ascend the heights. Many excellent tracks besides the singles grace the album; my personal favorite is ?In My Arms Again,? though I prefer the grittier and gutsier live version on the EP Shoes on Ice. Perhaps it was the pressure of performing live, perhaps it was late in the evening, but Shoes? characteristic sweet melodies are almost entirely stripped from this version, leaving Jeff Murphy?s sexy growl, particularly in the all too short last part, where a repeated verse becomes the framework for a buildup in intensity and tension. It?s the moment when I most regret not having (yet) seen them live.
1981?s Tongue Twister had fewer gems, I think, but a more consistent production style. ?Your Imagination? (one of Shoes? few triple-credited songs) is just terrific, as are ?She Satisfies,? ?Girls of Today,? and ?Hate to Run.? Physically, it was a beautiful record, with a stylized cover, though it never spoke to me quite the way Present Tense had done. It could be because, as I got older, I became more aware of those gender implications mentioned above; as a budding feminist I bristled at the service-industry tone of ?She Satisfies? (?That was satisfactory,? I hear Gary Klebe say in my head) even as I completely loved the structure of the music.
I felt similarly disconnected from Boomerang, which I think is Shoes least successful total album. They seemed to be turning into a singles band, where the great songs were really great, and the so-so songs genuinely so-so. (As a fan, I can only identify two or three songs in the whole catalog which annoy me so much I skip over them.) There?s a strange disjunction in Jeff Murphy?s ?Bound to Be a Reason?; though couched as a romantic (or perhaps merely brotherly) renunciation, the music itself features Murphy?s oh-so-effective growl (it always makes me melt, anyway), and the throbbing melody all but dares the subject of the song to sleep with someone else. I?m also a big fan of ?The Tube?: thematically similar to and roughly contemporaneous with Black Flag?s ?TV Party,? but in my opinion smarter, because it depends less upon a loutish persona. One can only imagine what Klebe might have come up with in today?s cable-saturated environment. Unfortunately, songs like ?Tested Charms? fail to escape the ?la belle dame sans merci? vibe of the early work.
I missed Silhouette when it came out, but caught up with it much later. By that time, I was ready to forgive the somewhat alarming foray?full force, guns blazing?into synth-pop. I always thought Shoes were strongest when they trusted their own ears, and the attempt to capture the zeitgeist of the mid-80’s didn’t seem to quite make sense to me. But it is, decidedly, a Shoes album, and some of the songs are really catchy, particularly John Murphy’s ?Twist and Bend It,? and Jeff Murphy’s ?It’s Only You,? which sound like Shoes on coke. The reinvention of ?When Push Comes to Shove? on the live album Fret Buzz is gloriously refreshing, suggesting that many of the songs on Silhouette might be ripe for such a rediscovery. Despite the synthesized guitars (and drums, and even?gasp!?vocals), Shoes are indeed under there, somewhere, as it turns out. A young friend of mine, recently confessing his fascination with retro-80?s synth-pop, was delighted at the copy of Silhouette I passed along to him.
I caught 1989?s Stolen Wishes much closer to its release. Shoes returned burdened by some really unfortunate 80?s haircuts (though those of us who had poodle perms in the mid-80?s really cannot throw stones). In some ways, Shoes really should have been the first nerdcore band?I mean, cute as they were, they didn?t look like rock stars, they looked like guys from your algebra class, a la Weezer. But we have to keep time in mind too, here: even in 1989, nerdcore wouldn?t be an option for several years. Apparently, however, they had met a nicer class of women, which all true Shoes fans were pleased about (we were always rooting for them, after all), and which helped me personally to reconnect to the band. Also, ten years after my first introduction to them, I was able to shake the teeny-bopper approach and listen to the music from a fundamentally different perspective.
Musically and thematically, I think Stolen Wishes is probably my favorite Shoes album, connecting for me on almost every song. They’re both raunchier and goofier than any of the other records (including, for example, the only explicit reference I’ve ever discovered to the female orgasm, in John Murphy?s ?Feel the Way that I Do?). I love the predatory sexuality of Gary Klebe?s ?Can’t Go Wrong??that sort of sexual assurance is missing, I think, from Shoes? earlier work, and provides an essentially positive view of relationships?even if they are just about sex. Similarly, the barely veiled metaphor in Klebe?s ?Your Devotion? always makes me smile. And the pure mid-60?s pop riff of Jeff Murphy?s ?Love Does? is graced by the emotions the song itself expresses, and John Murphy?s ?Never Had It Better? is pop genius, pure and simple. I revel in the weird simile of ?Love is Like a Bullet??second only to 20/20?s ?Jet Lag? as a bizarre metaphor for emotional experience.
I went hunting for Stolen Wishes primarily on the basis of hearing several songs covered on the terrific tribute compilation Shoe Fetish, released in 2001. (Finding Stolen Wishes in a box of old tapes, I realized that I had almost forgotten about this album; recently, it?s been almost all I listen to.) The real discoveries on Shoe Fetish are the retellings of Shoes? songs?not merely the recreations. Given the issues I have with the band, I guess it?s not surprising that my favorites are the female singers of Big Hello doing ?Tomorrow Night,? the AstroPuppees doing ?The Tube,? and The Masticators doing ?Your Imagination??Shoes have always been such a boys? band that the female energy is refreshing, and these versions seem a bit edgier than some of the safer songs on the CD.
One of the things I always really liked about the band is their absolute equity. The balance of singers and songwriters on any given Shoes album is always roughly equal: 1/3 Gary Klebe, 1/3 Jeff Murphy, and 1/3 John Murphy. Like The Beatles, they divvy up singing based on who wrote the song, and occasionally there are triple-authored pieces like ?Girls of Today,? in which each take a part, or ?Three Times,? which is really a triptych of songs segueing smoothly into each other. This equity is quite refreshing. One doesn?t get the sense that one sometimes does from XTC, one of my other favorite bands, that Andy Partridge reluctantly allows Colin Moulding his three songs per album?no, here the collaborative process seems quite different. I?m not sure how else one would negotiate the complicated process of having three gifted songwriters in one band. Sometimes I wish they wouldn?t, when I?m having a Gary day or a Jeff day or a John day, but mostly it works, like an idealized polygamy, engaging in turn with different consciousnesses, different experiences.
Recently, as part of my rediscovery, I?ve been filling holes in my own catalog, and so happened to catch up with 1994?s Propeller and 1995?s Fret Buzz at the same time. Some critics have suggested that the band has remained basically consistent throughout their long career; I can?t see it that way. Propeller shows the band stretching their skills in some unusual directions, from the moody cello of ?In My Mind? to the psychedelic ?Treading Water? and the frankly obscene (but, you know, in that good way) ?Animal Attraction.? The divergence, though, seems like a good idea to me and suggests that this band simply keeps developing and getting better as they allow themselves to wander out of their traditional milieu. Even the heartbreak songs here (a Shoes? staple, always) reveal a maturity and intelligence developed over years. For example, the ache at the bottom of songs like Klebe?s ?The Last of You? is thematically similar, but miles away from his ?Not Me? off Black Vinyl Shoes.
Like Shoes on Ice, the live Fret Buzz features stripped-down and much edgier versions of the songs I know from studio production. It features some of my favorite tracks from both Silhouette and Propeller?particularly an almost primal version of the fairly hard (by Shoes’ standards) ?Tore a Hole? shifting even the melody line in its reinterpretation. And the only unreleased track, Klebe?s ?In Harm?s Way,? drips with existential angst.
We haven?t heard much from Shoes in a while, though they still play out now and again (most recently at the International Pop Overthrow Festival in Chicago this spring). But in a recent correspondence, Jeff Murphy assured me that ?Shoes never goes away, we just go in and out of music-making phases.? (Jeff himself is working on a solo disc this year.) Though I’m still missing the career-spanning compilation As Is, I don?t expect to have my opinion changed too much. Shoes are who they are, and I wouldn?t have it any other way.
Shoes hit me at that really special time, when I was defining who I was and what I liked, and they are a crucial part of who I understand myself to be. With innocence and charm, as well as kickass guitars, they were the first band who really belonged to me. Like rereading your first love letters, rediscovering Shoes periodically has been both bittersweet and grounding for me.