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A Friend Indeed 

Luna's last waltz and what it means to be a best-friend band

Wednesday, Feb 2 2005
There are very few bands that I consider my best friends. Some people I know have a lot of these bands, just as some people I know collect friends like antiques. I only have a few -- best-friend bands, that is -- and I'm glad that's the case. How many do you really need? And at what point do you have so many that you begin to take their collective existence in your life for granted?

Now one of my best-friend bands is dissolving our friendship, breaking up, pulling a round of farewell gigs and taking off for good. It's amicable; it makes sense; I'm not holding a grudge. But I am sad. And I'm in the mood to revel in memory for about 1,500 words, so ...

Luna. Luna, Luna, Luna. In terms of bands, Luna was my first kiss, my first broken bone, my first beer. Everyone has a band like this. Think about which is yours -- it's the Smiths, right? Yeah, Morrissey and his crew grabbed a lot of people that way. If it's not the Smiths, perhaps it's Fugazi or Sonic Youth or the Pixies, Radiohead or Nirvana, Black Flag or the Minutemen, Built to Spill or Death Cab for Cutie, the Clash or the Jam, the Replacements or Guided by Voices, or some band I've never heard of. My little sister is a sophomore in high school and any day now she's going to discover her first best-friend band; she may already have that band in her iPod and not even realize how important it will be to her one day.

BFBs are like that. It may take you three or four albums to realize you've found one, and not because those first few records are subpar, but because one of the key things about a BFB is that both of you grow together, your lives moving in new and different directions, and yet, in spite of the changes, which can be drastic, you somehow stay linked to each other. The are lots of bands whose first or second record I fawned over, but that, for various reasons -- I changed locales, or discovered a new genre of music, or just couldn't listen to the band's stuff anymore because it reminded me too much of an ex-girlfriend -- I lost track of. BFBs have a funny way of avoiding that fate.

Luna's first record was 1992's Lunapark, its second 1994's Bewitched. It was Bewitched that grabbed me. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and I was just beginning to discover that there existed this thing called "underground" music. (Thanks in large part to the Internet, kids are figuring this out a helluva lot sooner these days.) As I listened to, and fell in love with, Bewitched, I had no idea that it was made by four guys living in New York City; no idea that Dean Wareham, the heart and soul and voice and guitar of Luna, was originally from New Zealand, or that he had fronted one of the most important alternative rock bands of the '80s, Galaxie 500, a trio of dour East Villagers who were among the initial pioneers of the languid/fuzzy shoegazer sound canonized by My Bloody Valentine, among others. These things were lost on my 10th-grade self, but it didn't much matter. These musicians lived far away from my Orange County suburb, but their sound synced up perfectly with my high school years.

Bewitched opened with "California (All the Way)," whose four lapidary chords remain among the most crystalline sounds I've ever heard put to tape (you may remember the song from those old Calvin Klein CK One commercials). There was also the album's title track, which evokes, both then and now, the frustrations of adolescent love more plainly and tenderly than any John Hughes movie: "Do you see her face in a puddle at my feet?/ Yes I've been down, to kiss the street."

After Bewitched I moved backward and forward at the same time, picking up 1995's Penthouse as well as Lunapark and its precursor, the chill-inducing Slide EP, which featured covers of Beat Happening's "Indian Summer" and the Velvet Underground's "Ride Into the Sun." Luna has been harshly criticized as Velvet Underground Lite, but I didn't know who Lou Reed and John Cale were back then, so I freely wore my Discman out listening to "Ride Into the Sun" and everything else my favorite band put out, just as I imagine many younger fans do with the work of the Strokes today.

One of the inevitabilities of any friendship is that at some point one of you will screw up. Shallow friendships end there. Good ones stand a chance. The defining trait of a best friend, though, is that his love is unconditional, his capacity to forgive boundless. Just as I was beginning to understand the depth of our friendship, Luna screwed up. In 1997 there arrived Pup Tent, a flat and uninspired album that led to the band's being dropped from Elektra Records. Wareham's lyrics were becoming caricatures of themselves, like on the catchy but cloying "Bobby Peru": "S is for sorry/ For all that I did/ Now is the time to turn it all around." One of the most hazardous things about a great band releasing a mediocre record is that the act then feels compelled to perform the new songs at shows, which only serves to further piss off those of us who came to hear "California (All the Way)" and "Indian Summer."

To make matters worse, Luna did the exact same thing again in 1999 with The Days of Our Nights, on which Wareham's vocals and lyrics sounded depressingly phoned in. Sure, it was nice to hear the group adding horns and strings to its three-chord dream-pop, but the record was jarringly uneven and riddled with miscalculations. Take the single "Superfreaky Memories," a perfectly pensive song with a Pachelbel's "Canon" lilt to it, which shits its own pants when Wareham sings, "These superfreaky memories have put me in my place." Luna's haunting cover of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine," which closes out the record, only serves to play up the poor songwriting in the tracks that preceded it.

Luna and I didn't talk for a few years. In 2001 the band put out a live album, which everyone knows is a sign that the creative wellspring is running dry. I didn't buy it. In 2002, however, a funny thing happened: Romantica. Luna had taken three years between LPs, and, judging from the reviews the record received, it was worth it. I was still mad, though, or more specifically I felt like I had outgrown my once good friend. Between Bewitched and Romantica, my tastes had exploded to include everything from experimental noise to German techno. I had lived in L.A. then New York then L.A. then Oakland. And that girl who had made "Bewitched" such a disturbingly close-to-home song? I hadn't talked to her in years. I was happy to hear that Luna was doing well, but wasn't especially moved to reach out.

The thing about best friendships, though, is that they find you, not the other way around. In July of last year I received in the mail a promo copy of an upcoming record from a band I had all but forgotten about. At the time, I was three weeks out of the most intense relationship I had ever been in. I was raw and confused and scared about the future. I needed a friend, someone unaffiliated in every way with the situation I was in at the time.

I put on Luna's Rendezvous with the lowest of expectations. No reason to get my hopes up, no reason to get excited. It was useless: I liked it straightaway. "Malibu Love Nest" trots out of the gate with a chattering bouquet of snare snaps and Sean Eden's fuzzy-wuzzy guitar notes. For the first time in years Luna had returned to what made it so grand in the first place -- understatement. (I've since gone back and purchased Romantica, and will happily admit that it is many wonderful things, but not understated.) The songs here sway confidently; they're not in a hurry because they've got nowhere to go. "Hand in hand on the edge of the sand/ We danced by the light of the moon," purrs Wareham on "The Owl & the Pussycat," as guitars and brushed cymbals create the sonic equivalent of disco-ball light flakes.

Wareham knew this album would be his group's swan song when he entered the studio to record it. The singer/guitarist is over 40, and, he explained to me in a recent interview, unless your band is a multimillion-dollar corporation like U2 or the Rolling Stones, you get sick of making decisions by committee as you get older; put simply, you get sick of being in a band. Rendezvous could have gone a lot of ways. If you know you're making a final go at something, there's obviously a certain pressure to make it resound. And yet the songs here sound effortless, not like those of an act with something to prove, but rather one with nothing to lose. As I wrote in these pages on Dec. 8, 2004, in my review of Rendezvous: "At once a bang and a whimper, this is the way Luna's world ends, and it is breathtaking."

And that's the main thing about best friends: They're there when you need 'em. Time marches on, and so does your best friend. He gets married and moves away, your weekly chats become monthly e-mails become a phone call on his birthday. But then one day, planned or otherwise, that friend comes rolling back around, and does that thing he does, and you realize that there's no one else in the world who does that thing so well, and there's no one other than you who would appreciate that thing anyway. If ever you find a band that makes you feel this way, say a simple "thank you" to whatever god you believe in, and try to enjoy the ride.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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