(“Making Me Understand” is a series of occasional posts where I talk about a particular work of art or artist and discuss its relevance to me, both historically and in my present situation. Here are the others in the series.)
Long ago and far away, in college, I bought an album by the Dutch band Bettie Serveert, Palomine, because I had enjoyed their radio hit, “Kid’s Allright.”
But the album also contained a cover version of a song I hadn’t heard before. The liner notes credited it to a band called Sebadoh, which I had heard mentioned but hadn’t actually heard, since I had not yet become an avid campus radio listener. I don’t know why the cover of the song struck me back then. Listening to it again today, I hear a lot of feedback and a waltz-ish rhythm, but… not much else to distinguish it. (I’m sorry, Bettie Serveert.)
But what that cover version did do for me was propel me into Sebadoh fandom. I didn’t listen to too many bands from the US at that point, aside from X. But 1992 was the year I fell for Sebadoh (and their musical cousins, Pavement.)
Sebadoh’s lineup has changed a lot over the years, with their most well-known incarnation featuring Lou Barlow’s sweet, melodic love songs that have more than a touch of saudade, and Jason Loewenstein’s heavy metal-infused indie rock noise walls. The band with two distinct personalities. Their music eventually formed much of the soundscape of my brief time living in the Midwest after grad school.
I started collecting Sebadoh albums. But it was early days for the Web, so I didn’t know much except for what Bettie Serveert had put in their liner notes. The song was “Healthy Sick” and it was from Sebadoh’s album, The Freed Man. The days of sending a SASE to a PO box for a mimeographed discography were over, but it was still difficult to find specific albums except by having a mental list you would run through every time you visited the right kind of record store. You know, the kind of record store you only find vestiges of today online, in blogs or alt-weekly archives, with maybe a scratchy photo of the storefront and “RIP” somewhere in the headline. Only the strong have survived.
While I was living in Ann Arbor (which, being a college town, had like three or four of these record stores), I would often make weekend escapes to Chicago. I needed frequent doses of Big City, and my friend T lived there. We often went to shows together, which was good because when the same bands came through Detroit, I invariably had no one to go with. Chicago also had plenty of good record stores, and it was in one of these, sometime in 1997, I believe, that I found The Freed Man. It was an LP.
Once I got back to Ann Arbor, I unwrapped it and settled in to listen. And it was… weird. It was a prequel to everything I’d heard. Like hearing the band in utero, through an ultrasound machine. It was just Lou Barlow and Eric Gaffney, Sebadoh’s co-founder, doing a couple dozen starts to songs. Just when one gets going, it’s over. Some tracks are just noise. Some, like “Punch in the Nose,” are hilarious. Some, like “Ladybugs,” offer Cliffs’ Notes fairy tales.
And after years, I finally got to hear “Healthy Sick” at last, in its original version. (If you’ve wandered here in search of actual rock criticism, I can happily point you to this professional appreciation of the song. What I do here, as usual, is tell you why this song is relevant to me.)
If you’re reading this post via email, it won’t work, but if you’ve clicked through to the Web, you can click play on the YouTube link below, and follow along with the lyrics.
“Healthy Sick,” by Sebadoh
No one can stop it all from crashing down to shit
Pushed to feel something more than just the sound of it
Time, time is the magic truth of stories
Sometimes magic is so very very boring
It’s a healthy kind of sick
A slow sort of quick
Very sad; I don’t feel bad at all
It’s a different sort of sane
A crazy kind of sane
A feeling without a name that they call “love”
Because I have my doubts, I know it must be true
Watch the dream die every day; I don’t know what to do
I know it’s only fear that makes me wonder
But I wonder why I’m so afraid
I wonder why I’m so afraid
Now, one can ascribe all sorts of motives to the songwriter – and it has to be Lou Barlow here, it has his moody, lovelorn fingerprints all over it. Is it a song about failure? Love? Illness? It’s all kind of hard to pin down, isn’t it? If you were to try to make an outline of the lyric situation of this song, things would keep falling out of it.
And this is why I love it so much. It’s a meditation. You can fixate on one line or one emotional state, or you can let them all blur together. And in either case you won’t be wrong. Not like those confounded “Magic Eye” pictures popular a decade or so ago, where you had to know how to train your eyes to generalize the image in just such a way so you could see the actual point, which was a different image. Some of us never got the hang of the stupid “Magic Eye.” We were left out. And it’s not offering any perky positive affirmations, either. It’s meditative, but extremely realistic.
This song isn’t leaving anyone out (except maybe my dear parents, who are perpetually flummoxed when trying to understand my posts about popular music). But, unlike a Hallmark poem, which strives to be uncomplicated enough to let everyone in, and leaves on your tongue the distinct taste of marshmallow sweetness while offering no substance at all, “Healthy Sick” can give you the impression that it gets where you’re coming from. It UNDERSTANDS, because it has BEEN THERE. And it’s not trying to fix anything or solve your problems, because it can’t even solve its own!
Is there any greater feeling in the world than the feeling of being well and truly understood? On the rare occasions I feel understood, an entirely different sun comes to shine on me – one with rays that don’t cause cancer. J understands me (mostly – and for the other parts he’s extremely tolerant), so I’m lucky we’re married. When I don’t feel understood, like, say, when I talk to medical insurance people for an hour with no progress, I want to cry. I do cry. The incommunicability is just… incommunicable. Painful. You know?
I feel like the deeper I get into trying to explain the significance of this song to me, the more sidetracked I get. As though the heavy clouds of pot smoke present at the creation of The Freed Man were secondarily affecting me, too. And boy, am I hungry.
Anyhow, it’s true. No one can stop it all from crashing down to shit. And the “magic truth of stories,” to me, suggests God. God has been pretty marginal for me in the past year. I wouldn’t say God is boring, per se, but is definitely beside the point for me these days.
And then there is the literal fact that I’m a “healthy kind of sick.” Week after week I meet people who are either visibly relieved I don’t look like death, or insist on asking how I’m feeling (I always turn it around and ask them how they are), usually with my kids around and when we’re headed somewhere and I really just feel like giving them the address of this blog. I feel good, people, okay? Well, at this very moment I feel sick, but it’s a common cold. (There will be no blog post about the cold.) It would be much less annoying if you asked me about my job search, or when the hell am I going to send out the essays I’ve been working on for a century.
I hope, if I’ve brought this song to your attention for the first time, that you like it. I don’t expect you to sing it in the shower or while driving (I do). Maybe you hate it! In the universe of “Healthy Sick” I would hasten to say that is totally fine too.
Yours, as ever, from the universe of grave illnesses that don’t make you seem very sick,