Sometimes my obsession with Ted Leo scares me1.
I have either RJ or Marie to thank for introducing me to him, not sure which. Both of them made mix CDs for me within the same six month period, one with “Me and Mia” and the other with “Biomusicology.” Or maybe “Bridges, Squares” was on one of them. At some point the name Ted Leo and the Pharmacists cracked the caseyanthony barrier and I knew them as someone to look for. RJ burned me a few tracks and I buried myself in a dark cave2, listening to Shake the Sheets until I had it memorized.
Last week, Meghan saw Julie Klausner record her podcast live. She tumbled about how much fun it was, and how Fred Armisen was there, and oh, Ted Leo played the opening song. Reading that, my first reaction was a a brief spasm of jealousy that a friend of mine had seen Ted Leo play more recently than I had.
I don’t feel this way about any other artist. There are plenty of writers, directors, actors, musicians, etc. whose work I love. There are a handful of artists whose work I examine obsessively for hidden meaning: Gene Wolfe, Jay-Z, and the like. But Ted Leo is the only artist at work right now who I can’t pretend to be cool about. I can’t sit in my comfy chair, glass of Scotch in one hand, and hold court on his merits. I can’t be a detached borderline hipster with pretensions to cultural criticism.
I hear his shit and I just need to rock the fuck out.
Trying to pin reasons on an obsession demeans both reason and passion. But this is a blog, so that’s my job3. So I’ve tried to untangle the reasons that I’m so unreasonably fixated on Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and I’ve found four.
First, there’s the political content. TL/RX hit me at a point in my life where I was finally swinging from right-libertarian to left-libertarian to … whatever you want to call me now. I hadn’t pinned all my aspirations on Obama the way a lot of my friends had, but the fact that no one was taking him to task with the furor that Bush had been was frustrating. Along comes this punk from D.C. who, like me, can’t “deal with trying to process / pigeons acting like they’re doves.” I hear this for the first time, then the fifth, then the fifteenth, and I can’t get enough of it. Not only is it the frustration I’ve been feeling, but it’s so artfully expressed.
Which leads me to my second point, and that’s the political passion. It’s one thing to dismiss the inability of a two-party system to constrain the agglutination of power with a disillusioned wave and a bon mot. And I’ll never get tired of that. But it’s another thing to channel that sentiment into emotion. Disillusionment doesn’t mean deadening; your “good-bye to all that” doesn’t need to be a weary sigh. It can be angry. It can be joyful. It can be hopeful. It can be a lot of things, not all of them bitter. I’ve written before about the need to separate the anti-war movement from the hippies with which it’s traditionally linked, to give voice to “full-throated pacifism.” TL/RX run the gamut.
My third point: words. Lyrics and vocals matter more to me than almost any other part of a song, which probably explains why I like hip hop so much4. But if the musical composition is great as well, that’s a pearl without price. I’ve loved what little Elvis Costello I’ve been exposed to because of his gleeful blend of pop rock style and subversive lyrics. I loved the Hairspray musical for the same reason. Ted Leo plays in that same field. He can turn the passionate-but-doomed-but-inspiring struggle of an anorexic into a blaring rock anthem. He can get a crowd singing along to a cheery ditty about the sad tendency of radical movements to turn in on themselves. For someone who loves language as much as I do, every Ted Leo song is a feast.
And finally, the music is just really damn good.
The dispassionate critic I’ve been trying to be for thirty years is crying out for help. This is ridiculous. It’s like there’s a different person living in my head, a person with ripped jeans and a studded leather jacket and an encyclopedic knowledge of Operation Ivy. Some day Ted Leo’s going to die (everyone is) and I’m going to be bent out of shape for a week because, as far as I know, there’s no one else giving voice to the same issues with the same passion and skill in the form of awesome indie rock. I don’t know how to fix this. I’m not sure I want to.
1. A value-add, for people who know us both, is to imagine this entry read in the voice of Kevin Quigley.
2. For which read “my apartment.”
3. It’s not.
4. The white suburban adolescent fascination with the authenticity of black urban poverty and anger explains the rest of it.