Trembling Blue Stars — Alive To Every Smile

41FBDZK28ALAct: Trembling Blue Stars

Title: Alive To Every Smile

Year: 2001

Format: Ten song LP.

From: London. That’s rainy suburban London, mind you — the London where the architecture is monotonously pretty, and a double-decker bus splashes muddy water all over your trousers.

Genre/style: There’s good reason to call Trembling Blue Stars a tweepop band, and foremost among them is the reverence in which the band is held by the twee and heartbroken. If you yourself are an indiepop fan who has been dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend and now suffer from the pains of unrequited love (not to mention being pure at heart), it’s a good chance you already have several TBS albums in your collection. If you aren’t, you probably have no idea who I’m writing about today. While the band’s tonal resemblance to the Lucksmiths is minimal, Trembling Blue Stars fits in with twee indiepop because it really can’t be placed anywhere else. This stuff could be confused with Air Supply if you weren’t listening closely, and I suspect the same could be said about many of the most melodramatic indiepop records made in the ’90s and ’00s. Yet many of the best-known tweepop bands get by with slapdash declarations of romantic longing, skeletal arrangements, and questionable chopsmanship. That’s not what Trembling Blue Stars does. Even the Field Mice — that’s the band TBS evolved from — were much better at their instruments than their peers were, and their records were meticulously recorded and produced to a sheen that’s liable to make a punk rock fan gag. So: heartbroken enough to spend album after album dwelling on it, but not too distraught not to obsess over the drum and synthesizer sounds. Just like Air Supply.

Key contributors: The main perpetrator here is Robert Wratten, who is kind of a test case: just how lovelorn can a songwriter be? How long can a band sustain the same even, doleful, wrist-slitting tone? Wratten is to mournful heartbreak as Wiz Khalifa is to marijuana. Better yet, Wratten is to heartbreak as the Insane Clown Posse is to Faygo: like a juggalo of sadness, he sprays the stuff all over you. You don’t come to this music to dodge what he’s got. You come to be showered in it. Camera Obscura once called an indiepop album My Maudlin Career, and this would also be a good name for Robert Wratten’s biography. If you’re the type of music listener who is attracted to extremes, you’ll want to check out Trembling Blue Stars just to experience how morose popular music can get. The sage Elton John told you that sad songs say so much; Wratten is the man who proved him indisputably right, and kept on proving him right until everybody cried uncle. He turned on the tap in 1987, and whether he’s called the project Northern Picture Library, The Field Mice, Trembling Blue Stars, or one of the other names he’s used, it’s always been the same. He’s fixed his stories of romantic desperation to six-string shimmer, sweep synthesizer pads, and occasional techno beats, and sung it all in the stupefied but unsurprised mumble of a chess club president who’d just seen his former girlfriend in the arms of the football captain. Other Trembling Blue Stars albums cut Wratten’s misery with female vocals mixed to emphasize the woman’s unattainability; Aberdeen’s Beth Arzy and Annemari Davies (who we’ll get to shortly) both sweeten Alive To Every Smile a bit, but more than anything else in a pretty big catalog, this one is the bandleader’s show. The other major force on this record is producer Ian Catt, who is probably best known for his work with St. Etienne, an electropop act that has never been properly appreciated in the States. Catt has fitted Wratten with various shades of melancholy since the days of the Field Mice. Occasionally he’s been accused of overproduction, as if the whole purpose of his job wasn’t to get everything to shimmer, swoon, and ache by all means (and by all overdubs) necessary. Lucky for Wratten, Catt is a shimmer, swoon, and ache specialist, and he’s never let his pal down. That means that Trembling Blue Stars albums rise and fall on the strength of Wratten’s writing, and his ability to sustain and focus his peculiar vision.

Who put this out? Sub Pop. By 2001, the label had more or less completed its transition from an outfit that backed the likes of the Screaming Trees to an outfit that backed the likes of the Shins. Still, memories of Kurt Cobain howling from the muddy banks of the Wishkah don’t fade so easily, and TBS’s jump to Sub Pop at the turn of the millennium was accompanied by a mild jolt of cognitive dissonance. (St. Etienne made a similar leap from an indiepop label to Sub Pop around the same time.) Broken By Whispers, the Trembling Blue Stars album that preceded Alive To Every Smile, was the first Wratten project to be released through Sub Pop, and I recall it got a pretty nice push from the imprint. For a shining afternoon, it seemed possible that TBS could gain the same sort of foothold in the States that Belle & Sebastian had. Back home in the U.K., Wratten was still working with Shinkansen, the successor label to Sarah Records, a quasi-legendary operation that put out albums that sounded exactly like what you’d expect to get from a label called Sarah Records. Picture a girl named Sarah with a hair clip and a bicycle with a bell and a basket, and a tear-stained love letter in the front pocket of an argyle sweater. Go on, give her an ice cream cone for good measure. The Field Mice are sometimes described as the quintessential Sarah act, yet Wratten’s understanding of classic pop architecture set the band apart from the very beginning. Those interested in further study might make an investment in Where’d You Learn To Kiss That Way?, an exhaustive compilation that inspired ten thousand cupcake pop bands, at least fifty of which I played synthesizers for.

What had happened to the act before the release of this set? The Field Mice were followed by the slightly more electronic Northern Picture Library, followed by the slightly less electronic first Trembling Blue Stars album, followed by the slightly more electronic second Trembling Blue Stars album, followed by the slightly less electronic third Trembling Blue Stars album. To complain that these records all sound the same is to miss the point utterly. It’s monomania that Wratten is chronicling. He required an aesthetic to match his obsession. The early history of Trembling Blue Stars is one run-on journal entry that begins in a blue funk and descends further into despondency from there. The first album is a clutch of fresh breakup songs, and they’re redolent with not-so-secret fresh breakup hope: somehow the tectonic plates will reverse and the dawn will break and the girl will come running back with mascara a little smudged from weeping but no worse for the wear. By the time of Broken By Whispers, Wratten’s faith was shot to pieces, and he’d arrived at the conclusion that even if he managed to land the girl he was fixated on, she’d changed so much since the breakup that the rekindled relationship would be worthless. “The person you were, I know you’re not her, she’s gone away,” he sighs on “She Just Couldn’t Stay.” All is lost, all is shitty, nothing on the horizon but the dreary procession of loveless days. The one-two gutpunch of “Sleep” and “Dark Eyes” that concludes Whispers could be the most depressing ten minutes in the history of recorded music. Here Wratten has resigned himself to a life of misery and meaninglessness; the breakup he still can’t make sense of has put a hole in the hull, and the ship is destined to limp around a torpid sea until it finally goes down. In its fatalism, many wounded indiepop kids found this romantic. Some of us, God help us, even found it sexy.

What obstructions to appreciation did this album face? This brings us to the one leading fact that even casual fans know about Trembling Blue Stars: Robert Wratten wrote many, and quite possibly all, of these confessional, excoriating, self-pitying early songs about his bandmate Annemari Davies. TBS was initially designed as a vehicle for Wratten to express his devastation about the breakup. In case there was any ambiguity, he put a picture of Davies on the cover of the second album. What’s remarkable about this is that for the first two albums at least, Davies remained in the band, and continued contributing to Trembling Blue Stars until the very end of the project. (Those must have been some rehearsals.) If this had happened between, say, Beyonce and Jay Z, there’d be an industry devoted to unpacking the nuances and dynamics of the lyrics; since it’s indiepop, we’ve got to satisfy ourselves with occasional weblog posts. Davies does not seem like the sort who kisses and tells, and interest in the vagaries of Wratten’s romantic life has waned, so we’ve got the albums to go on, and that’s about it. In any event, there’s something deeply sadomasochistic about this arrangement — although even at the time it was hard to tell who the masochist was. It is instructive to know that as twee as the handle sounds, “trembling blue stars” is actually a phrase pinched from The Story of O. To indiepop fans nursing their own wounds and resentments, it was something of a relief to realize that no matter how pathetic they felt about their own love lives, Wratten was willing to be even more pathetic, and in public. Here was a man who didn’t even have the stones to throw the girl who’d dumped him out of his band. As good a songwriter and wordsmith as he is — and he is — it is indisputable that Trembling Blue Stars owed much of its prominence within indiepop to the soap opera at the heart of the project. Wratten, a calculating musician, was willing to capitalize on his own emotionally dysfunctional life story. Yet by the time of Alive To Every Smile, this had become something of a problem. Never mind that there was nowhere to go after the desolation of “Sleep” and “Dark Eyes;” he was beginning to be known as the guy who couldn’t stop writing about getting dumped. Now, as pop brands go, that’s a pretty good one, but like all pop brands, it’s confining. Since there’s not much sonic differentiation between TBS album, it was easy to assume that Alive To Every Smile was more of the same. Just about every reviewer jumped to the not-unreasonable conclusion that Sad Man Wratten was at it again. Only he wasn’t; not really. Because unless there’s a dimension to the Davies story that he hasn’t chosen to overshare, this time around, he’s writing about somebody else.

What makes the words on this album notable? Right off the bat, Wratten signaled that this was going to be a different trip. “Under Lock And Key”, the kickoff song, opens like this: “You’ve got to stop fucking her up, you’ve got to grow up.” Let’s examine both halves of this uncharacteristically profane (by Trembling Blue Stars standards) note to self. Wratten hadn’t ever been too concerned with growing up before, and that’s because he presented his heartbreak as an apocalypse that had forever halted the hands of the clock. Yet here he was hinting that he knew there was something adolescent about the position he’d taken on the first three Trembling Blue Stars albums — and in Northern Picture Library and the Field Mice, too. I hope you realize that I’m not being pejorative in any way by calling Wratten juvenile. If my girlfriend were to dump me, I’d throw a tantrum so whiny and immature that every DYFS agent in town would be forced to storm my house. Even if I’ve never lived through the unpleasant things Wratten sings about on Her Handwriting, I can sympathize with the extent of his meltdown. Sometimes the only justifiable reaction is a toddler’s reaction, and there’s no sense in dressing it up in sophisticated b.s.; that’s why “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”, as laughable as it is, goes straight to our souls. Anyway, that’s not the Robert Wratten we’re getting here. We’re getting a version of Wratten who understands that the meter is running, and that love affairs are pierced through the core by time’s arrow along with everything else. With it comes another realization: the narrator is just as responsible for the turmoil as the object of his affection is. On Alive To Every Smile, Wratten plays the perpetrator, not the victim. He’s no less soft-spoken than he ever was, but now he’s unashamed to admit that he’s as driven by the sexual imperative as any frathouse mook: “I wanted her so bad, you see,” he explains, flat-footedly, on the album’s centerpiece, “I just wouldn’t stop at anything”. Desire, on Alive To Every Smile, is a force that prompts people to behave impetuously and irresponsibly, and the more Wratten’s protagonist tells himself he’s doing wrong, the harder it becomes for him to locate his virtue. The woman he’s after is probably married, certainly off-limits, and tempted to play with fire. The main character begins the story as a would-be tweepop lothario interrogating his own morally compromised position, plunges into the deep end of the pool anyway, and discovers the water is a lot hotter than he expected it to be. By the end of the album, she’s taking the train back to the life she knows, and he’s the disbelieving, heartbroken schmuck on the platform talking to himself. So, yes, the result isn’t so far removed from what you’d get on other Trembling Blue Stars projects. The crucial difference is that this time Wratten knows that he’s been an active participant in his own emotional demolition. This is a grownup’s realization, Alive To Every Smile is a grownup story, and as every grownup knows, but every pop song attempts to mystify, an affair is always a tragedy. In order to make the ultimate album about what it’s like to be in the midst of one — because that’s what we’ve got here — it takes an experienced tragedian, one painfully familiar with the dynamics of self-deception. “I think love should come with madness,” sings Wratten on “Maybe After All,” and this preference stands as an implicit critique of the girl he’s chosen to seduce: she’s not going to go utterly crazy with him and sacrifice everything, and he knows it, but he’s already gathered too much momentum to stop himself from going over the edge of the cliff. “When we see a chance to be loved,” he sings on “With Every Story” in a prompt that sums up all of his work, but especially this album, “who knows what we’re capable of?” Now, Robert Wratten’s lyrics are often called diaristic, and it’s possible that Alive To Every Smile is just as autobiographical as the first three TBS albums. He may have actually picked up and fallen for a married woman, she may have refused to ditch her husband, and this set may be at least as epistolary as Here, My Dear. Those still interested in Wratten’s personal story will no doubt notice that the writer has appended a mysterious set of initials to the lyrics printed in the CD booklet. Me, I think it’s more significant that Wratten chose to include printed lyrics in the first place. This is the only Trembling Blue Stars album that comes with the poetry attached, and I do not believe that this is just the residue of Sub Pop’s art design department. Wratten is particularly proud of this set, and he wants to make sure you notice how succinct and epigrammatic they are, how economically the story is advanced, and how each image has been carefully seared into the lines to reinforce the narrator’s move from ambivalence to rhapsodic abandon to destabilization to stupefaction. “It’s the rest of our lives — that’s all we’re making a difference to!,” he sings on “Ammunition,” in a typically sympathetic but histrionic closing argument. Apparently she’s unmoved. Or, more likely, her idea of the value of the rest of her life differs sharply from his, and she’s calculated that she’s got more to lose than he does. He believes surviving isn’t everything; she doesn’t want to be drowned. Tough luck, Bobby.

What makes the music on this album notable? It was the canny Tim Benton of Baxendale who, on “Music For Girls,” implicitly called for solidarity between fans of lovelorn tweepop, delicate dance music, and every other form of art that the chavs can’t stand. Since we’re all facing the same beatdown from the same fraternity brother on the same cultural playground, a missing link between Belle & Sebastian and the Pet Shop Boys shouldn’t be that difficult to find, right? Benton wanted Baxendale to be that missing link; Ian Catt probably felt the same way about St. Etienne. Trouble is, no matter what Robert Smith and Bernard Sumner were able to accomplish in the ’80s, it is brutally hard to mope and dance at the same time. Brood and dance, maybe, or indulge in glorious self-pity while kicking at the pricks. But true heartrending tweepop has little relationship to the booty. (Please oh please be a pal and don’t bring up “Stillness Is The Move”.) Ironically, Robert Wratten, King Mouse himself, is the practitioner who’s come the closest to a genuine fusion. Some of this is probably accidental; while he’s got his heart in the house music experiments on the Lips That Taste Of Tears album, I think they’re there to evoke the psychic destabilization of the disco and, only distantly after that, to get you to shake it. Since it’s basically a concept set about putting trouble where there wasn’t any, Alive To Every Smile steps back a bit from the dancefloor and privileges mood over motion. There are more achingly slooooooow Christopher Cross ballads here than Wratten usually foists on his listeners, which is not to say that they aren’t really good Christopher Cross ballads. The exception is the slightest song on the set, and the only one that doesn’t really advance the story — “St. Paul’s Cathedral at Night,” a reverie with a comedown-phase techno pulse and a breathy vocal sample. Like “ABBA on the Jukebox,” an earlier song, “St. Paul’s” consists of Wratten flagellating himself with strands of memory; thus, the music needs to simultaneously sting and feel dreamlike. He pulls it off, but the ambience comes at the cost of the album’s forward momentum. Other experiments work better. Album closer “Little Gunshots” is semi-bossa nova, which ought to be a farce but works brilliantly instead by sucking every breath of equatorial breeze from its dessicated version of tropicalia. “Here All Day” extends Wratten’s fascination with fatalistic early-’60s pop ballads; “Under Lock And Key” sets the tone with mildly distorted drums and guitar and a marginally rougher vocal approach than anything TBS had yet attempted. It all serves to anticipate, echo, offset, or frame Wratten’s Fifth Symphony: “The Ghost Of An Unkissed Kiss.” Here is the maestro of lovelorn excess in rosy overdrive, layering guitar track upon guitar track (natch, one is even backward), saturating the frequency spectrum with organ, synth, and backing vox, mixing machine beats with live drums, and letting the whole shebang run for four-and-a-half minutes of indiepop glory. In case one melodic hook wasn’t sufficient, Wratten baits the fly-trap with a second, and then a third, and then a fourth, with each one steady enough to support a song on its own. The composition couldn’t be any more assured, but the motivation is frantic: if Wratten can just make the song catchy enough, irresistible enough, the girl will get tangled up in it like a kitten in a ball of yarn, and he wouldn’t ever have to say goodbye again. In years of playing indiepop, I’ve never seen it work out that way, but our best songwriters go right on trying. As romantic fallacies go, it’s one of the most fruitful.

Dealbreakers? Wratten’s voice is something of an office-worker grumble, and it can sound downright comical when paired with the gigantic arrangements of songs like “Unkissed Kiss.” No matter what the band does, or how many glossy six-string and backing vocal tracks he overdubs, he always sounds like a sad sack, and you may occasionally tempted to slap some sense, or some animation, into him. (This said, Leonard Cohen has gotten away with the same thing for decades.) On other albums, Davies and Arzy brighten things up with lead vocals of their own, but this one is his narrative masterpiece, and he holds center stage for nearly an hour, only breaking the soliloquy for long sections of guitar wash. If you haven’t warmed up to him by the fourth song, there’s a good chance this isn’t for you. I am also aware that there are those who still believe male pop singers ought to behave on record like Sylvester Stallone in Cobra, and others who are moved to write thinkpieces about the bothersome sociocultural implications of the twee aesthetic, and others with a reasonable distaste for the act of kissing and telling. If you fall into one of these categories, you will certainly pitch Alive To Every Smile out the window. Pop-rock did get rather wimpy and passive-aggressive in the ’00s, and there certainly is a time and a place for Motorhead. But if you want to argue, and some do, that Robert Wratten’s beleaguered, poetic diary entries constitute illegitimate rock practice, I can’t hang with you there. Heartbreak is as essential subject for American popular songwriters as Cadillacs and blue balls. As Fleetwood Mac, or Kanye West, might tell you, if you’re going to indulge yourself, you may as well take it to the limit.

What happened to the act after this? Wratten followed up Alive To Every Smile with the only dud in his discography: The Seven Autumn Flowers, which wasted a great TBS handle and a beautiful cover image on soporific, unmotivated, second-rate material. The exception is the terrific lead single “Helen Reddy,” sung by Arzy, which is probably about the same affair that consumed Wratten on the prior set. Seven Autumn Flowers would be the last Wratten project to get a decent, albeit indie-sized, push in the States (it was released by Hoboken’s own Bar/None); its failure to expand the Trembling Blue Stars audience probably threw the last shovelful of dirt on Smile. In America at least, tweepop moved on to other heroes, and it seemed likely that we wouldn’t be getting any more installments of the Adventures of Robert Wratten. As it turned out, the old fox had one last trick to play. The Last Holy Writer, released in 2007, broadened the arrangements, varied the tempos and the beats, and let a few rays peek through the clouds. A few songs were, in longstanding indiepop tradition, gay-affirmative; “A Statue to Wilde,” the seven-minute closer, manages to be gorgeous and also make a political statement, and if you think that’s easy, try to come up with another song you can say the same thing about. The presence of topical verse demonstrates that Wratten had stepped out of the confessional, at least momentarily — and when he does sing about himself, as on “November Starlings,” he’s provisionally content. He remains willing to put a chorus like this one, from “Idyllwild,” in Arzy’s mouth: “Life was so open then/now it’s closing in/one by one our dreams have disappeared.” Yet for the first time, it seems possible that Wratten is singing about another character, and that means a substantial difference in tone. Trembling Blue Stars retired from live performance after briefly supporting Holy Writer; Fast Trains And Telegraph Wires (is Wratten good at titles or what?) followed, almost as an afterthought, a few years later. It’s a good album and a fine end-note, but it played like a reiteration of past glories. In America, it sunk without a ripple.

Will this album ever receive its propers? Tweepop posterity, lusting after youth in strict conformity with the stereotype, tends to overrate the Field Mice and underrate Trembling Blue Stars. That’s when people are thinking of Robert Wratten at all, which happens all too infrequently. The grand, glossy arrangements that he and Catt favored have gone out of style;  the Pains of Being Pure At Heart — an obvious bunch of Wratten fans — are more inclined to run their mixes through nasty-ass distortion. Consider that the latest Pains album has been slated because Kip Berman has cleaned up the sound and made something not unlike a mid-’90s TBS set, and you begin to realize the problems that the Wratten revival faces. The Field Mice stand to be rediscovered first, and with it the story of Sarah Records and the doomed Wratten-Davies romance. Thus, even if Americans get hip to Robert Wratten in the future — not at all a likely thing — Alive to Every Smile is likely to get lost in the shuffle. Wratten probably won’t be able to call attention to his narrative masterpiece without getting back on the road and playing songs from it — preferably “Ghost of an Unkissed Kiss,” but “Little Gunshots” and “Under Lock and Key” are likely to intrigue pop fans, too. Luckily, Wratten appears to have unretired again: there’s a Facebook page for a new project called Lightning in a Twilight Hour, which I can’t believe wasn’t already the name of a Trembling Blue Stars song. I’ll be the first in line at the record store, if there were still record stores that stocked this stuff, or if there were still record stores, which there hardly are, but you know what I mean.

 

Tris McCall: tris@trismccall.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Critics Poll XXII — Singles

Let’s get the foregone conclusion over with first:

1. Adele — “Rolling In The Deep” (284)

There was a moment in December when I thought “Video Games” would win, but that was before we found out Lana Del Rey was a Nazi war criminal or something. Just as it was in the world outside the walled garden of content that is the Critics Poll, Adele dominated our Singles list. Adele is an interesting character and one who merits some discussion, but first I want to talk about another singer who didn’t make the list below, or the albums list yesterday. While Adele was rolling to a win, Lady Gaga was getting shut out.

This was supposed to be Gaga’s year. She told us so herself, back in the early spring: she was about to release an album that would be as epochal as Thriller, and which would spawn singles that would become the soundtrack to our summer. She was going to turn pop music inside out. The funny thing was that this wasn’t just hot air or pre-fight hype. Lady Gaga really tried. She emptied everything she had into that album, and as it turned out, she had an awful lot to empty. That is why the Born This Way listening experience is akin to tripping over doohickeys and thingamajigs that Lady Gaga has pulled out of her bag of tricks and left scattered on the floor. And then there’s “Americano.” The less said about that, the better.

Born This Way did not flop. An Amazon deal in which she unloaded copies for 99 cents made the album an instant bestseller. Lady Gaga was on top of the world, and then she wasn’t. Adele took the steering wheel back, and she’s held it ever since. Without the benefit of an extensive American tour behind it, or fifty thousand singles from it, or some silly, headline-grabbing scandal surrounding it, 21 has been at or near #1 for more than a year. It’s still #1 now. Adele has spent the last few months on the disabled list with throat problems. While her peers have been dragging ass around the concert circuit in the vain hope of moving some units, Adele has been lapping them all from the comfort of her gurney.

That’s not supposed to happen. You’re only supposed to maintain a vice grip on the #1 position if your label is in promotional overdrive and you’re playing shows nonstop. At the time of the release of Born This Way, Lady Gaga was wrapping up the umpteenth leg of the Monster Ball. She kept touring behind The Fame Monster as she was releasing the lead singles from her new set. Then she went to Europe and Asia and kept right on dancing. All of this happened, mind you, after a solid seventeen thousand months on the road. For better and for worse, Lady Gaga is an artist incapable of taking a rest. She needs the approbation, or she’s afraid she’s going to get Wally Pipped by somebody, or she’s like the Blues Brothers and the cops are outside the arena waiting to take her away, or those stagelights just feel mmmmm so good. You will never again see an artist sneer in the face of overexposure as boldly as Lady Gaga did. She asked for a backlash like she was sitting at the counter at the Backlash Diner and she had the munchies. The only real question was what shape that backlash would take.

I hope you will not think I am diminishing the very real accomplishment that is 21 by pointing out something that has been obvious to me for at least nine months now: Adele is that backlash. Everything that is celebrated about Adele is a not-so-secret repudiation of the woman who was, at this time last year, the queen of popular music. Lady Gaga wears meat and jumps around; Adele got on MTV at the VMAs in a black dress and hardly moved as she sang. Everything about Lady Gaga’s public mission is oriented outward: she wants to make big statements about life and death and Mary Magdalene and how male homosexuality is nice. Adele has one topic: her inner pain. Lady Gaga sings souped-up ultramodern synthpop and over the top, kitchen-sink productions like “Edge of Glory” that would make Bonnie Tyler blush; Adele cut an ostentatiously organic album that sounds as if it was made in 1977. Lady Gaga is pop’s great postmodernist — a jumble of signifiers held together by the centrifugal force of the star’s charisma. Adele radiates integrity. Adele makes a show of her polite traditionalism; Lady Gaga makes a show of her vulgar iconoclasm. 21 is intimate, personal, confessional; Born This Way is the work of a reflexive exhibitionist. Lady Gaga emphasizes the inhuman aspects of her appearance, exaggerating her cheekbones and wearing prostheses, and identifying herself as a monster. She aims to make people uncomfortable, and she often succeeds. Adele is Just A Girl.

This Sunday, the music industry will celebrate Lady Gaga’s deposition by taking the crown off of her head in front of a national televised audience and putting it atop Adele’s beehive. Or maybe they won’t — Arcade Fire won the Grammy for Album of the Year last year, and so confident was I that that could never happen that The Suburbs was the only nominated set I didn’t bother to prepare a lede about. But even if the voters plump for Bruno Mars and name “Holocene” the best record in the history of ever, the job is already done, and Lady Gaga did more than a bit of it herself. 21 was going to be a hit no matter what — the conservatism of “Rolling in the Deep” does not undercut its intensity, or the astounding force of the encounter with Adele‘s disappointment and rage. That’s a classic record, and one by which we’ll all remember 2011. But I believe there is no way that 21 would have sold as much as it did if we were not, on some unconscious level, punishing Lady Gaga for her audacity. Even as she entertains us, we find offensive her unwillingness to stand still, open up, and assume a fixed identity with an elaborated interiority. The more shows she did, the more she plastered her face on to the news and into magazines, the more absurd Very Gaga Thanksgiving specials she convinced the networks to air, the more passionately we praised Adele the good daughter. It turned out that Adele didn’t have to tour in support of 21 after all. Lady Gaga was doing the legwork for her.

I dig both of these artists. I am somewhat less thrilled about the prospect of four zillion Adele clones scaling the charts and clogging the airwaves over the next few years. 21 works because Adele is such an impassioned singer (Lady Gaga is an excellent singer, too) that the atavistic elements of her project don’t overwhelm its spirit. Others who’ve worked the same territory — and that included Amy Winehouse — have not been able to turn the same trick. That jazzy, gooey, taffy-voweled delivery all the rage among contemporary singer-songwriters with an eye on the adult-alternative market has become the biggest cliché in pop. Actually, it became the biggest cliché in pop about three years ago; these days, it’s more like a calamitous failure of imagination that makes me wish I‘d devoted my time to designing dungeon modules after all. God bless Lady Gaga for refusing to sing that way. It’s nothing principled, I’m sure — she’s just got different antecedents. She draws from an arena-pop tradition in which the singer must constantly demonstrate that she can fill an airplane hangar with sound, sans microphone. That’s a style that will always be associated with the 1980s, which may finally be drawing to a close after twenty extra years of Reaganomics and dayglo. If the ’80s are finally over, we can thank Gaga oversaturation for helping to kill them off. But as a big phony and a pop guy, I will always prefer ’80s pastiche to ’90s sincerity. We’ve probably turned that corner for good, and nostalgia now means flannel, Guided By Voices albums, and Clinton-era earnest hooey. I imagine that’s good news for the man in the Oval Office. It is not good news for the girl on the disco floor.

Okay, as promised, here’s the rest of the list:

2. Foster The People — “Pumped Up Kicks” (174)
3. Britney Spears — “Till The World Ends” (159)
4. The Throne — “Niggas In Paris” (152)
5. Rihanna & Calvin Harris — “We Found Love” (143)
6. Lana Del Rey — “Video Games” (132)
7. Bon Iver — “Holocene” (122)
8. Lykke Li — “Get Some” (117)
9. M83 — “Midnight City” (116)
10. Adele — “Someone Like You” (111)
11. LMFAO — “Party Rock Anthem” (110)
12. Eleanor Friedberger — “My Mistakes” (106)
12. tUnE-yArDs — “Bizness” (106)
14. St. Vincent — “Cruel” (97)
15. The Decemberists — “This Is Why We Fight” (92)
16. Wild Flag — “Romance” (91)
16. Drake — “Marvins Room” (91)
16. The Horrors — “Still Life” (91)
19. Beyonce — “Countdown” (87)
20. Cass McCombs — “County Line” (86)
21. Cut Copy — “Take Me Over” (85)
21. Florence & The Machine — “Shake It Out” (85)
23. Nicki Minaj — “Super Bass” (83)
24. Drake — “Headlines” (81)
25. The Throne — “Otis” (80)
26. R.E.M. — “Uberlin” (79)
26. The Strokes — “Under Cover Of Darkness” (77)
28. Kreayshawn — “Gucci Gucci” (76)
29. Frank Ocean — “Novacane” (75)
30. Tyler, The Creator — “Yonkers” (73)

We’ll get in that miscellany really soon, I promise. Tomorrow I have fewer deadlines. But a big train is coming down the track, and it says Grammy Awards in red letters on the smokestack. Your man has to ride that train or get runned over.

In case you missed it, here’s the Album of the Year list.

Critics Poll XXII — Albums

21st Century schizoid woman.

In “The Courage to Be,” the kickass theologian Paul Tillich argues that anxiety is fundamental to the human condition. Confronted by the inevitability of death, we’re hounded by the anxiety of impending nonbeing. Unleashed on earth without any instructions about what we’re supposed to do here, we face the anxiety of meaninglessness. And since in order for us to prosper, we’re pretty much required to mow through forests of plant and animal life — not to mention other human beings who might happen to be in our way — we feel the burn of the anxiety of condemnation and the guilt to which there is no earthly answer. There is no Gucci you can buy, no Louis Vuitton to put on, as Kanye realized in “Pinocchio Story”, that allays the anxiety that underpins existence.

Depending on what genre of popular music you call home, you’ll have different strategies of coping with this unpleasant reality when you sit your big butt down to write. There is a tradition of pop that attempts to wallpaper it over with platitudes about eternal youth and freedom that is always free. We tend to think of this stuff as disposable, but sometimes a dumb three minute escape is worth more to your immortal soul than a brilliant philosophical treatise. The Christian artists believe as Tillich does — that there is a supernatural force in, or around, the universe of matter that will salve our fears if we stand just so. A superior writer like Brooke Fraser can indeed get her listener catch some religion, but a lesser artist handling matters of faith can make Christianity look mighty facile. Even the rappers who go on and on about “reality” lyrics often falter when confronting ultimate reality: they have a tendency to romanticize the struggle by making every cosmic problem assume a self-dramatizing dimension. For every Geto Boy sitting alone in his four-cornered room, there are dozens of emcees who stitch their disregard for mortality, meaning, and culpability into a garment of sharply-tailored nihilism.

It is my opinion (which is a weirdly professional one these days) that the style that confronts anxiety with the greatest amount of courage is progressive rock, and while I like a story about Baba Yaga’s Hut as much as the next veteran of White Plume Mountain, it is that courage that keeps me returning to prog. Among many pop listeners, the image of prog-rock is and will always be elves dancing around in Arvandor, which is certainly cool in my book and probably yours too. But for those who really know it, the story of prog-rock is different. The story of prog is Greg Lake screaming about life on a knife-edge, and Roger Waters’s clocks all going off at once, and Kate Bush wailing about the terms of her bargain with the big guy, and Jon Anderson fretting about our stewardship of Mother Earth, and Peter Gabriel’s intruder and Tori Amos’s letter to Lucifer and Adrian Belew’s death by drowning in analysis and Fish from Marillion waiting on the whistle to blow. Progressive rock has its dodges and dead metaphors. But after the lightning flash of the virtuosos fades, you are left with a peek into the abyss that is admirably unflinching, and that has only ever been matched in its steeliness by the work of the best rappers.

Our winning album has guitar passages as fleet as Steve Howe’s on Relayer. There are synthesizer freakouts that would make Keith Emerson squee with delight, signal processing as far out as Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, and at least one bass instrument (there is no bass credited) that generates the primeval ooze percolation sound of Tony Levin’s Chapman stick. None of that is why I align Strange Mercy with progressive rock. Well, okay, some of it is. The style assumes instrumental excellence and daring on the axe, and if there’s a better, more imaginative player out there than Annie Clark, I’d sure as hell like to have her in my band.

But Clark isn’t prog because she can shred. She’s prog because she devoted her entire album to a battle with anxiety that, by the time the set is over, achieves cosmic reverberations. Clark has made an album that sounds like an anxiety attack: she hits us upside the head with sudden instrumental breaks, meltdown noises, leftfield interruptions of the standard pop trajectory from soft to loud and back again. The traditional Chinese medicine people like to talk about rising qi: the dragon that lives near your spleen and rushes up to the vents in your head when you’re beside yourself with panic. The Western doctors say the same thing in different language — the fight or flight mechanism kicks in, your hands go numb, and your head becomes so overloaded with frantic energy that you think you’re going to tip over. St. Vincent has the skills to translate that experience into pure sound: synth oscillators that go from a low burble to a high, thick wail and then overtake the whole song, dirty guitar that starts on the bottom strings and rips across the mix like a blunt knife, drums that pound the same stiff and unvarnished rhythm over and over, frail and intricate melodies that seem in constant peril of getting engulfed by the tidal wash of the arrangements.

I don’t know if Annie Clark has panic issues, and I’m not really sure I want to know. She might have read about them in a book, and she could be sufficiently imaginative that she extrapolated the whole messy business about the best finest surgeon, the summer on her back and the kingdom for a cup of coffee in the year of the tiger. Or she could have had a single attack long ago, and it was such a profound experience that she keeps writing about it. But listen: there is a moment in “Northern Lights” when Clark’s composition, which had been steadily building, suddenly becomes as intense as a unwelcome bell in the brain, and the singer, breathless, admits that she’s convinced that she’s living in end times. And then the whole thing collapses, like a tower imploding, into squiggles of chaotic synth and filthy fuzz guitar. The eschatology doesn’t need to apply to the universe. It is enough that it applies to her. She’s pushed past metaphor into a place where ontological ground is disintegrating, or, to put it another way, Annie Clark is scared shitless. She’s in touch with something all too real, and she’s looking it straight in the face, with nothing but her guitar to protect her. It could never be a consolation, because there is no consolation, but I hope this latter-day prog-rocker — the heir to Tori Amos’s throne — knows she’s carrying on tradition.

Okay, enough from your friendly neighborhood headcase. Let’s do this the way we do: artist, album, then total points.

1. St. Vincent — Strange Mercy (322)
2. Destroyer — Kaputt (318)
3. Okkervil River — I Am Very Far (309)
4. The Throne — Watch The Throne (270)
5. PJ Harvey — Let England Shake (231)

Yup, that’s very close — the closest win, place, and show finish we’ve ever had. In a not-so-surprising turn of events, you guys almost gave the honor spot to yet another part-time Pornographer. That’s a long-standing habit for Critics Poll voters: find the nearest member of the New Pornographers and catapult him or her to the top of the list. Kathryn Calder didn’t make the top 40, but she certainly got her votes, and if her album had been publicized a little better, I think we’d be seeing her name somewhere high on this page. Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far had its many detractors, mostly since Will Sheff decided to jettison the clarity that had always been his calling card. The experiment seems to have worked. After taking some time to shake hands with the newest OR, many of the voters who initially confessed confusion about Sheff’s new direction ended up listing the album anyway.

6. Eleanor Friedberger — Last Summer (226)
7. The Decemberists — The King Is Dead (216)
8. The Weeknd — House Of Balloons (183)
9. Drake — Take Care (178)
10. Wild Flag — Wild Flag (172)

Some crunchy numbers for the numbers-crunchers: 121 people voted in the Poll, which is the exact number we had last year. Strange Mercy topped more ballots than any other album (12), but did not appear on as many lists as Destroyer did (23). The most frequently named album, Last Summer, (listed on 26 ballots) only received one Number One vote. Eleanor Friedberger did far better on this Poll than on any other I’ve seen, and she keeps up the streak of strong Fiery finishes. Brother Matt released something like nine experimental solo albums in 2011, and nobody voted for any of them; I don’t think Winter Women did very well in the Poll either. Our Furnaces-crazy voters seem to prefer Matthew Friedberger in a support role.

No matter what stunts he pulls, Critics Poll voters are resolutely in Colin Meloy’s corner. The rest of the world slammed The Hazards Of Love; we found room for it in the Top Five. The King Is Dead was another 180 degree turn — these days he’s left the taiga for American territory that he’s defending with both fists. He wants us to know why he’ll fight, and if you rise to him, he’ll blow you down. Meloy imagines California falling into the Pacific Ocean, and let’s just say he doesn’t sound too bummed out about it. The implications of all this are pretty obvious, but Meloy and the Decemberists are teflon Poll contestants, so I’m not surprised that they weren’t punished by us pinkos for their sudden patriotism. (If you’re just joining us this year, Critics Poll sweethearts are the New Pornographers, Belle and Sebastian, the Decemberists, and the Fiery Furnaces, and after this year’s result, Okkervil River should be added to that list. Poll voters do not turn on their sweethearts.)

11. Girls — Father, Son, Holy Ghost (165)
11. tUnE-yArDs — w h o k i l l (165)
13. Tom Waits — Bad As Me (163)
14. TV On The Radio — Nine Types Of Light (160)
15. The Mountain Goats — All Eternals Deck (152)

St. Vincent is our first female winner since Liz Phair took the Poll in 1993. That’s pretty damning. Women did better this year than they have in the past few: Eleanor Friedberger, PJ Harvey, Wild Flag, and Merrill Garbus all made appearances in the top 15. The weird thing is that our distaff voting contingent shrank substantially in 2012: many female regulars opted against submitting ballots. That sharply reversed a ten-year trend in which our once-pitiful female base grew with each Poll. Last year, 45% of the votes cast were by women, which was an all time high for this enterprise. This year, we were all the way down to 31%. New voters were overwhelmingly male, rock-o-phile, and from New Jersey, which surely says something I don’t want to hear about how I’m living. While those new voters got with the program fast and submitted deep ballots, they didn’t have much of an impact on the final score; in fact, if I’d just counted their votes, the Foo Fighters would have won (Wasting Light placed 45th with 84 points.) Women strongly supported our winner — of the 12 number one votes cast for Annie Clark, only two were by guys.

A few more splits: Girls (the band, not the gender) was almost entirely supported by out-of-state voters, who made up 60% of this year’s electorate. That number, too, is down, as the Critics Poll continues to come home to New Jersey after a few years of wandering around Williamsburg in a fugue. We’ve all been there. The Jer-z favorite this year was Okkervil River, and some of the locals, who we’ll get to in a bit.

16. The Antlers — Burst Apart (148)
16. Fucked Up — David Comes To Life (148)
18. Kurt Vile — Smoke Ring For My Halo (147)
19. Fountains Of Wayne — Sky Full Of Holes (145)
20. The Roots — undun (142)

Movement: The Roots took one of the biggest leaps forward for any returning group, jumping from 82nd place for How I Got Over to 20th place for undun. It was the group’s best finish since Illadelph Halflife made the Top 10 in 1996, and back then, there were only a handful of voters in this Poll. St. Vincent’s Actor, by the way, finished 33rd in 2010, which is a reminder that she didn’t come from nowhere to take the prize. The biggest drop by far? The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, whose debut tied for 9th place in Poll XX. Their sophomore album wasn’t named on a single ballot. I’m not completely sure, but I think that’s unprecedented.

Other acts barely changed position. The Antlers finished 19th with Hospice two years ago; this year, they’re up to 16th. Girls, who were 5th last time around, sagged modestly to 11th place. Real Estate finished 30th two years ago. With slightly stiffer competition, the Ridgewood band placed 33rd in Poll XXII. Everything about that band is a flat line.

21. Low — C’mon (135)
22. Raphael Saadiq — Stone Rollin’ (133)
23. Fleet Foxes — Helplessness Blues (131)
23. Paul Simon — So Beautiful Or So What (131)
25. Radiohead — The King Of Limbs (130)
26. Wye Oak — Civilian (128)
27. Bon Iver — Bon Iver (126)
27. Iceage — New Brigade (126)
29. The Joy Formidable — The Big Roar (118)
30. Danny Brown — XXX (116)

A question posed to me by a non-voter privy to the results: why don’t Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, or Radiohead ever do as well in this Poll as they do in all other Polls under the sun? Am I subtly, evilly manipulating the data to give the shaft to the heavily bearded acts I don’t particularly dig? Well, for starters, I do like Fleet Foxes quite a bit, even if I wouldn’t care to be a functioning cog in some great machinery. I think Robin Pecknold is a very good singer and songwriter, and if he were to win a Critics Poll in the future, as he very well might, I wouldn’t be ashamed of that result at all. Radiohead is a group that I respect as long as I’m not concentrating too hard on the singer, which he usually makes next to impossible. If they’re not threatening to win the Poll anymore, I believe it’s because that wave has crested, and not because I am uninterested in publicizing their various chartbusters, as Matthew Friedberger once described the band’s output. Bon Iver is a different story, though. After Kanye brought him to Hawaii for the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions, I was predisposed to like his new record. I thought Justin Vernon would use electronics creatively, which he did. I was not prepared, however, to get a disc where I couldn’t make out a single word he was singing. If Bon Iver had been a metal album or some heavy-duty psych rock project, that would have been vaguely permissible, but on a folk-rock disc, it’s the kiss of death. I am not alone here. Look at the groups I’ve called the sweethearts of this Poll: Belle & Sebastian, the Decemberists, Okkervil River, the Pornographers projects. They do not tend to obscure their lyrics, even when the lyrics aren’t too good. Over twenty-two years, Critics Poll voters have developed an aesthetic preference, and Bon Iver did not fit it.

31. Robyn Hitchcock — Tromso, Kaptien (112)
32. Real Estate — Days (111)
33. Val Emmich & The Veeries — Aide Memoire (108)
33. The Mekons — Ancient & Modern (108)
33. Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter — Marble Son (108)
36. The War On Drugs — Slave Ambient (102)
37. My Morning Jacket — Circuital (99)
38. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks — Mirror Traffic (95)
39. Cut Copy — Zonoscope (92)
40. R.E.M. — Collapse Into Now (91)

Longtime Jersey favorite Val Emmich makes his first appearance in the Critics Poll Top 40 with Aide Memoire, his sixth set. Other local legends scoring well: The Smithereens (#53, 73 points), the Feelies (#64, 62 points), Kevin Devine (#66, 59 points). A few other interesting names bubbling under: Gang Gang Dance, a group that topped three ballots, Spottiswoode and his Enemies, the inescapable Adele, a band called Army Navy that I’ve never heard of before, and Noel Gallagher, who narrowly missed knocking his old pals R.E.M. off the list above.

Okay, that’s it for tonight, but there’s lots more to come. Tune in tomorrow for the singles list. Thanks, as always, for reading and voting and giving the Count something to count up. I love playing this game — it makes the short days of January and early February go a little quicker. We start our preparation for the Critics Poll in mid-December and we don’t look up until Super Bowl Sunday, and by then, it’s light out at five o’ clock and pitchers and catchers are threatening to report. It certainly beats waiting for the best finest surgeon to come cut me open, which is always a possible pastime.

Other albums getting #1 votes:

Amos Lee — Mission Bell
A$AP Rocky — Live Love A$AP
Battles — Gloss Drop
Beastie Boys — Hot Sauce Committee Part 2
Bill Callahan — Apocalypse
Carsie Blanton — Idiot Heart
Childish Gambino — Camp
DJ Quik — Book Of David
Eisley — The Valley
EMA — Past Life Martyred Saints
Fruit Bats — Tripper
Handsome Furs — Sound Kapital
Jack O’ The Clock — How Are We Doing And Who Will Tell Us?
Joe Rigby Quartet — For Harriet
Kathryn Calder — Bright And Vivid
Lil B — I’m Gay (I’m Happy)
Lindsey Buckingham — Seeds We Sow
Little Dragon — Ritual Union
Mastodon — The Hunter
Mates Of State — Mountaintops
Middle Brother — Middle Brother
Mike Quinn — MAGICO
Randi Russo — Fragile Animal
Silos — Florizona
Smith Westerns — Dye It Blonde
The Close Readers — Group Hug
The Gimps — Bath Salts
The Laureates — Spells
The Strokes — Angles
Thomas Wesley Stern — Hope Folk
Thrice — Major/Minor
Troubled Coast — Letters
When Saints Go Machine — Konkylie
Yellowbirds — The Color
Yes — Fly From Here

The Myth Of The Acid No-Hitter, And Other Drug Stories

Does this man look high to you?

As a kid learning about baseball, Dock Ellis was, to me, just another face on a bubblegum card. Not a particularly valuable card, either, considering Ellis was doing his pitching in near-anonymity under the Arlington sun. I would have given you three of Dock for one of Amos Otis or John “The Count” Montefusco. Shortly thereafter, I would learn an important life lesson — value is not constant. My baseball reference books told me so: Dock Ellis had once been the pitching star for the great Pittsburgh Pirates team that had upset the Weaver Orioles in the ’71 World Series. While I was busy being born, Ellis was dousing Clemente with champagne.

Later still, I would learn that Dock Ellis and Roberto Clemente had shared more than a uniform and a victory cigar. Ellis, like Clemente, was part of that first generation of post-segregation ballplayers who would not take any shit from Whitey. I reconstructed my image of Dock Ellis — not the soft-tosser getting thwacked around by the Yanks and Royals en route to an early shower, but a fallen ace with a golden, if erratic, right arm and attitude to burn; sort of the Baseball Gods’ dry run for that other Doc who was then all the rage in Gotham.

Old baseball obsessors collect anecdotes like young baseball fanatics collect picture cards. This is how we engage with ballplayers we were too young to watch on television, and, in a more roundabout manner, with the history of an ancient American game: we tell goofy tales about The Time When. Ellis hung up the spikes in 1980; Dock Ellis stories kept right on taking the field. Nothing unusual about that: folks like us will be rehashing Dizzy Dean fables as long as there are other boring seamheads to hear them. But then a truly curious thing happened — Dock Ellis became a site of interest for folks who couldn’t tell a curveball from a bowl of Cheerios. In recent years, Ellis has, as the kids like to say, blown up: musicians sing of him, rock bands are named for him, abstract painters have portrayed him in oil, news tickers clatter on about him, the Baseball Reliquary has enshrined him, hell, even those notorious bandwagon-chasers at NPR elbowed their way into the action. If you’re reading this, you probably know why. On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter on LSD. And four years after he retired, he told the world what he’d done.

It is fashionable, I suppose, to claim that the Acid No-No story is one that is bigger than baseball. It is certainly bigger than the baseball player named Dock Ellis. Ellis had an alcohol problem that swallowed his talent; his LSD problem has swallowed his image. You will never see an article about Ellis that doesn’t mention hallucinogens — in fact, most references to the pitcher will be nothing but silly gags. Some celebrate Ellis for his psychedelic experiment, others just make fun of him, but everybody has something clever to say about the Pittsburgh Pirate who was tripping balls while throwing strikes. See, I did it, too. It’s irresistible: Dock Ellis’s name has become a byword for pitching under the influence, and triumphantly, hilariously so. When Ellis died of liver failure a few years ago, Will Leitsch of Deadspin wasn’t the only one treating the Acid No-No as a monumental achievement (all while, you know, crackin’ jokes.) Mainstream press obituary writers sang the same hippie folk song. Right smack in the shadow of the Bonds trial and the Clemens mess, here was a player honest enough to admit that the peak (*giggle*) of his career, the true highpoint (*snicker*), had been chemically-assisted.

But was that really accurate? Not the LSD part; that’s Ellis’s own account of his habits, and there’s no reason to doubt that he really did drop acid and take the hill. Did the drug really help Ellis throw the no-no? Or was it, as some eulogists suggested, an obstacle to the pitcher’s performance, one surmounted against heavy odds? What did the intoxicant do to the athlete? Writers looking to enhance the craziness of the day often point to Ellis’s eight walks and one HBP: he must have been out of control and dangerous! But Dock Ellis always hit batters*; he plunked ten in thirty starts in 1970. And for a genuine staff ace, his walk-to-strikeout ratio was terrible. Ellis wasn’t an overpowering hurler — he relied on movement and deception to retire hitters. It is not unusual for pitchers with Ellis’s profile to have games — even good games — where they’ll issue a walk every inning. For years, we watched Al Leiter and Ron Darling do just that.

Dock Ellis threw the Acid No-No against the Padres at the old San Diego Stadium. When we were growing up, they called it Jack Murphy; after that, Qualcomm bought the naming rights. Whatever handle they slapped on it, it was always a wonderful place to pitch. In the thirty-four years that Jack Murphy Stadium hosted major league ball, there were only three seasons in which the park favored hitters. 1970 wasn’t one of them. That year, the Padres lost 99 games and finished dead last in the National League West. It was only their second season of existence post-expansion; in their inaugural, they’d dropped 110. In ’68, the Padres pulled an absolute rock at their expansion draft, saddling San Diego with a leaden roster that would languish in the cellar for six straight years. Still, there was a legitimate bright spot: Cito Gaston, who hit .318 with 29 home runs in 1970. Gaston was exactly the sort of hitter who’d give Ellis problems — a contact guy smart enough to wait out an inconsistent hurler and jump on a mistake.

Wait a minute, though: the June 12, 1970 game was part of a doubleheader. Cito Gaston didn’t play in the game that Ellis pitched. Nor did the starting shortstop or the regular third baseman. Remember that San Diego was an expansion team with no bench to draw upon; they barely squeaked together a corps of starters. Understaffed, the Padres batted Dave Campbell, who finished the season with a .219 average and a stomach-churning .268 OBP, at the top of their lineup. I repeat for emphasis: this was the leadoff man. Punchless Steve Huntz, whose lifetime BA barely cracked the Mendoza Line, hit behind Campbell. Throw in a journeyman centerfielder, a fill-in at short who’d promptly demonstrate he had no business in the majors, and a catcher with eighteen homers in fourteen seasons; dear Padres fan, you’re dead in the water.

So one of the National League’s best young hurlers takes the hill in a pitcher’s park and faces a last-place team running at half-strength. What do you suppose is going to happen? Baseball is a notoriously contrary game, and balls take funny bounces — but if Dock Ellis hadn’t handled the Padres with ease, that would have been a shocker. Zeroes on the scoreboard make a tidy story, but the Acid No-No wasn’t the pinnacle of anything — in fact, it wasn’t even one of the five best games Ellis pitched that year. Two weeks later at Forbes Field, he threw against a Cubs team muscled up with Billy Williams, Johnny Callison, Ron Santo, and Ernie Banks. Ellis went the distance and beat them 2-1. On August 6, he shut out the Phillies, and in the process bested future reactionary Jim Bunning. On July 9, he took the mound at Busch Stadium and fired a two-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals, striking out ten batters. (There was the peak of his 1970 trip, folks.) In thirty starts, Dock Ellis completed nine games and tossed four shutouts. Nothing about the Acid No-No was even slightly out of line with the expectations he’d already set for baseball fans.

What about all the walks? Well, lousy as they were, the Padres did get their free passes that year: catcher, the leftfielder, and the godawful third base fill-in were exactly the sort of hitters who stepped to the plate looking to take four wide. With Gaston getting a blow, pure slugger Nate Colbert was probably the best hitter left in the San Diego lineup: he’d clouted 38 round-trippers that year. Ellis walked him twice. You might say that he saw the catcher’s target as a pizza pie and he was looking to avoid splashing the marinara sauce. More likely he’d identified the one guy in the Padres order who could hurt him, and he’d wisely pitched around the threat. Dock Ellis may have been in touch with the cosmos that day, but his strategic thinking was entirely terrestrial. He did not issue a leadoff pass, most of his walks came with two outs, and he had no qualms about handing over first base with a runner on second. No matter how high he was flying, he remembered to set up the force.

And this brings me back to my initial question, and the one that resonates with contemporary controversies — what effect did the drug have on the athlete? Ellis’s own anecdotal account of the day involves a sense of disassociation on the mound, falling down, diving out of the way of line drives, etcetera. It’s colorful; it’s also misleading. Dock Ellis had three chances — including the second-to-last out of the no-hitter — and he fielded them all flawlessly. By now you probably think I’m missing the point: acid is a mind-expanding chemical that undermines the subject’s ability to accomplish quotidian tasks like hurling the ol’ horsehide, and Ellis’s mastery of the Padres demonstrates his superhuman focus and restraint. Or maybe his dealer slipped him a dud; a blotter nowhere near as potent as the one you and your ex-girlfriend had in college. Me, I’m inclined toward a different interpretation. The pitcher may have been tripping his ass off; he may have been seeing swirly colors and talking back to the little buccaneer on his cap. He may have thought his manager was a salt shaker. But the drug didn’t change his approach. The drug didn’t alter his velocity, his movement, or his concentration. There is no evidence whatsoever in the linescore or boxscore that LSD either impaired or enhanced Dock Ellis’s ability to play baseball.

And what psychedelic explorer could, in his burnt-out heart of hearts, really be surprised? Trips feel like epic voyages while you’re in the midst of them, but the first thing you realize when you come down is that those around you barely noticed you were gone. Maybe they thought you were acting weird, or self-conscious; most likely, they chalked it up to your usual freakitude and went about their business. Those things you were investing with profound symbolic significance?, they were probably the same damn things you always do. The problem with drug tales is always the same: they’re told by a druggie. An intoxicated person is hardly the best judge of the profound effects of his own high. Of course he’s going to overstate the power of the substance. He’s the one under the influence.

Besides, more than just the placebo effect is working on him. When he swallows the pill, he swallows all the pharmaceutical hogwash along with it. This is because we live in a culture obsessed with self-medication through substance intake. We believe that which we put into our bodies will profoundly alter not merely what we feel, but who we are. One pill makes us larger and one pill makes us small; and the androstenedione on the shelves of the GNC can turn an ordinary Joe Jockstrap into a pace-setting superman. Right now, there are a shocking number of educated baseball writers who believe that we must rip up the last twenty years of the Encyclopedia because some players did drugs. There are those who will refuse to vote Roger Clemens — the winningest pitcher of our lifetime — into the Hall of Fame because of something they believe he injected.

This isn’t fanboy stuff; I hate Roger Clemens, too. But I also hate witch hunts. The same puritans who insist that the record books have been hopelessly skewed by drug use cannot begin to measure any concrete effects that the drugs have had on player performance. Look at the names listed in the Mitchell Report, and try to impose some kind of order or pattern on what you see. You’ll fail. There are guys who were scrubs before the drugs who got better, and guys who were stars before the drugs who got worse. There are players who flamed out of the league, guys who improved dramatically, guys who’d popped their heads up from the minors for an injection only to be sent right back down. There are pitchers whose endurances improved after HGH, and others whose arms fell off and are still rolling around in the dirt. There are superstar outfielders and pine-riders, slugging first basemen and journeyman relievers, banjo hitters and flamethrowers, household names and palookas anonymous even to their own mommas. In short, it is the full panoply of organized baseball, there in its chaotic and unmeasurable splendor. Attribute it all to the drugs if you must. But acknowledge that when you do — when you insist that there’s nothing the drugs can’t do — you’re essentially giving up on pinpointing what the drugs can do. The drug becomes an idol of the worst and most tribal kind: all-powerful and vague, explaining everything and nothing, stealing the agency from the real human actors who make actual history.

It is no great surprise to me that, struggling as we are at the intersection between pharmaceuticals and athletic performance, we’ve become fascinated by the Dock Ellis story. LSD was the scourge of the sixties, but compared to modern compounds made by boffins in secret laboratories, it feels positively innocuous. There’s humorous friction between an American establishment sport played between the lines and a psychedelic chemical taken by counterculture types who desperately wanted to blur them. The irrationalist in me wants to leave the myth alone, and instead sing the ballad of the rogue Pittsburgh Pirate whose abilities were accidentally elevated, or distressed, or scrambled, or something by a hallucinogen. But I can’t. Sick and beleaguered and overmedicated as I am — as we all are — I don’t want to pretend that evidence for chemical performance enhancement exists; not when it doesn’t. Dock Ellis didn’t need a drug to be a terrific pitcher. He didn’t need a drug to be a character. He didn’t need a drug to be a hothead. And he shouldn’t need a drug to be remembered.

Tris McCall, a San Francisco Giants fan, encourages you to take your asterisk and shove it.

*one last thing about Dock Ellis’s propensity to hit batters, and then I’ll leave you alone until opening day. Ellis is semi-famous among fans of criminal assault with a baseball (and there are many) for plunking three Reds in a row, and attempting to hit two more before getting yanked from the game by his manager. He did this on purpose — he didn’t like the Reds, and he was attempting to motivate his team via violence. This happened on May 1, 1974, just after the Pirates staggered through an awful April. Disturbingly, most discussions of this incident will give Ellis credit for inspiring his ballclub; the Baseball Reliquary says “the strategy worked, the Pirates snapped out of their lethargy to win a division title while the Reds failed to win their division for the first time in three years.” Left unsaid is that the East was weak that year and the West was very strong — the Pirates took their division with 88 wins, while the Reds won 98 and finished second to the Dodgers. More to the point, aggressive behavior did not light a fire under the Pirates: they were 6-13 when Ellis went on his beanball spree, and didn’t reach the .500 mark until three months later. In large part, this was because those same Cincinnati Reds beat their brains in for the remainder of the season. The Pirates finished 1974 with a 3-8 record against the Reds; if they’d played Cincinnati in the postseason, they would’ve been trounced. As for the offender, after getting yanked from the first inning of the May Day game, he did not pitch a single inning against the Reds for the rest of the year. He didn’t pitch a single inning against the Reds in 1975, either. The next time Dock Ellis took the hill against the Reds, he was wearing pinstripes and it was Game Three of the ’76 World Series. Long deferred, revenge could not have been sweeter for Cincinnati: the Big Red Machine sent Ellis to the showers in the fourth inning. Dan Dreissen, whom Dock had plunked in ’74, chased the pitcher from the game with a longball. See, the actual story doesn’t add to the tale of Ellis the triumphant acidhead, but it turns out to be a lot more literary. Unseemly petulance in ’74 was rudely punished in ’76, and right there on the sport’s biggest stage. Rarely is poetic justice delivered with more grace or conviction, and it is a terrible shame that the story has been mangled in order to serve Ellis’s myth. Unchecked hostility was what was bad about Dock Ellis; a thoughtful and intelligent person, he surely would have conceded that. There’s enough in the Ellis story to inspire us. We don’t have to go casting around for ugly anecdotes to retrofit and glorify — especially not when the punchlines are so perfectly tailored to expose Ellis’s faults.