The Bible-black pre-dawn

I love songs that evoke night. I love them so much that the largest playlist—285 songs as of today—on my Apple iTunes is entitled “Sleepy Nighttime.” There’s no set tempo for nighttime songs, no predetermined sparseness or lack of noise that should be implied. (My Bloody Valentine is both loud, distortion-heavy, and often quick, but I’d never listen to the band during the day.)

Rather, there’s a mood of contemplation, a tinge of mystery, an improvisational and subtly surprising—rather than jolting or shocking—air about nighttime songs. They don’t call attention to themselves, but rather draw you in. Their sounds seep into, instead of bludgeon, the listener. In “Love Is Blindness,” U2 sings, “Won’t you wrap the night around me?” Nighttime songs make visions of the dark, star-dazzled night tangible enough that we can imagine such a statement. (Cassandra Wilson’s cover makes Bono’s intent even more apparent.) Almost all bebop, hard-bop, and post-1945 is nighttime music. Neil Young, even in his country/folk, goes full-throttle, but Harvest Moon deserves best to be played under one.

Bedhead is the quintessential nighttime band. One of my favorite memories is a 75-minute show by this Dallas band, in a small, densely packed club in Denton called the Argo (It no longer exists.), where the only stage lighting was drooping Christmas lights, and half the crowd, myself included, spent the show with its eyes closed—not asleep, but listening so intently to the intricate, intertwining instrumentation that visuals would only spoil the effect. Besides, Bedhead wasn’t a quintet exactly known for stage theatrics, anyway; it’s not like we missed much.

This post, in part, is about figuring out why I was/am so drawn to this band, why a mostly forgotten (and mostly under-heralded, even during its existence) band from the 1990s continues to mesmerize me.

The best album is the first one, 1993’s WhatFunLifeWas. Here’s are long snippets of what I wrote about it back in 2000:

Every layered guitar whispers, every drum beat quietly steps in and out of the band’s sound, and every half-heard vocal sounds like it’s trying (unsuccessfully) to step out of the limelight. The band’s album artwork is perfect—unassuming, mysterious, blurry. The musicians don’t call attention to themselves, and there’s not a clear, detailed photo of a single member on any of their albums. They don’t even mention where WhatFunLifeWas was recorded; they only give a rough sketch of when (“Recorded and mixed June September 1993”) and, instead of a band photo, all we have for the CD’s design is a blank off-white cover and an inside cover of an empty studio room, with recording equipment and cables strung around the void.

The five members of Bedhead are mystery men, preferring to create aural paintings with only shadows and reflections. The first song, “Liferaft,” is a perfect example. A quiet bassline (or is it a low-tuned guitar?) gradually develops into a melody, and the other instruments slowly work themselves into the mix, so imperceptibly that you don’t notice them or, rather, you notice them suddenly and wonder how long they’ve been there. The vocals—sung/spoken by Matt Kadane—must have begun at some point, but they feel as though they’ve been there eternally. When they leave, it feels so natural that you can’t quite remember that they were ever there…

The band’s songs build to loud, chaotic crescendos—in fact, “Haywire” is basically one long, excruciatingly powerful, bleeding peak of guitar squall—but the development of these crescendos occurs so gradually that you don’t notice them happening. Bedhead surprises you with sudden flashes of noise and catchy musical refrains, not because the bursts jump out of quiet structures—a la the quiet-verse, loud-chorus dynamic of much of 1990s rock—but because you can’t tell when or where the quiet, spare structures became so damn loud and so lush with layers…

You would think, with a sound like this, that the songs fade in and fade out of consciousness. In a way, that’s true. WhatFunLifeWas feels like a sunset. You watch the clouds grow red and orange, watch the sunlight bleed across the sky, changing the sky from pink and indigo to finally a deep, dark blue. The refraction of light on the clouds gradually turns to glittering stars in a clear sky. It’s night, but you couldn’t pinpoint where the dusk ended and the night began to save your life. Bedhead is a twilight band, best heard and understood at the time of sunsets, when the colors blend and time seems eternal.

But, in a way, the fade-in/fade-out is deceptively false. No song on the album actually fades in or out, technically. All of them stop at a clear point, on a finalizing chord. This is not a sound that floats ethereally, stretching itself thin, but a full-bodied sound that somehow also has the qualities of smoke. The rumbling drums of “Powder” punch the guitars into consciousness. The feedback guitar walls of “Haywire” and “Living Well”—perhaps the album’s only all-out rockers—make your ears bleed. Bedhead’s is a sound that grips, contorts and sometimes suffocates… but it’s also a sound that’s always gentle, polite, and seductive at the same time. Like a sunset, they can be no question that a Bedhead song happens, but you’re never sure when or how or even where, and in the end it doesn’t matter.

Man, I was longwinded back then. Maybe I still am. Mostly, though, I’ll stick by the sentiments of what I wrote seven years ago.

Anyway, the band’s back catalog is soaked in nighttime. After Bedhead called it quits in 1998, its songwriters (Matt and Bubba Kadane) formed the New Year, and continues to record. While Newness Ends and The End Is Near are both good, they rarely delve deep into the night anymore—the quartet is more direct, more distinctly post-punk and snappy, than its predecessor. The brothers’ soundtrack for Hell House tries to evoke the night in instrumentals, but it’s mostly downright soporific. (Slowness and minimalism aren’t, in and of themselves, proof of that certain nighttime feeling.) The New Year is a good, sometimes great, indie rock band, but Bedhead was something altogether more nebulous and less easily defined, and thus more interesting.

Oddly, I haven’t put Bedhead on my iPod. Mostly, I listen to the iPod when walking, jogging, or interstate driving—when I need boosts of adrenaline. Sleater-Kinney, Talking Heads, my “Disco Dynamite” playlist, a Phish live set, and Ghostface Killah are all good for jogging; maybe a few podcast interviews. Bedhead, not so much.

So, I don’t have much of the nighttime on the iPod. Last Friday, I found myself lamenting this.

I was driving up to Oxford, MS, for a history and cultural studies conference. Oxford’s about three hours northeast of Jackson, and I had to be there by 8:30am. So, I left home at 5:15am; I’d woken up at 4. Most days, I’m staggering out of bed around 7:15. All in all, it wasn’t the greatest of mornings for me. Still, it was fascinating to see the world at a moment past starlight but well before there’s anything visible beyond headlights and the black smudges of the trees gliding by on the highway.

It’s probably illegal to listen to the iPod on headphones while driving, but I had the sound low enough so that I could hear traffic, if need be. And, damnit, I needed something to get me by. A week ago, I’d made a mix CD for a music-swapping club of close friends to which I belong. The mix is on my iPod. Thank God its intensity only builds up gradually; blaring rock would have set my teeth on edge that early in the day.

Now, a song I’d included was Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the first track off of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The song reminds me so much of Bedhead that it hurts—Jeff Tweedy’s laconic, almost spoken vocal delivery; the way new instruments come into the mix so casually that I almost don’t notice them; the gradual buildup into lots and lots of noise and dissonance; the way the lyrics swing from perfect clarity to perfect inscrutability.

Of course, Wilco’s a radically different band from Bedhead. The former throws in every instrument it can into the mix, including the kitchen sink, and Wilco is often psychedelic where Bedhead would choose to be merely mesmerizing. The staccato drumbeats and truly weird keyboards hold my attention because, even after listening to the song upwards of a hundred times, I’m never quite sure when they’ll kick in, but they always seem just right.

The general message of the song seems clear enough. The first lines—“I am an American aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue”—establish the narrator as a man with big appetites and maybe a large enough ego to hold them, but he’s missing his lover badly; Tweedy sings them with a world-weary confidence. By the end, though, he’s a “disposable Dixie cup drinker,” and that “assassin down the avenue”—his use of “assassin” is a verb is brilliant—now sounds ironic. He yelps out the lyrics, but they’re barely heard behind a wall of distortion; it’s as though Tweedy is now fighting to be heard. That confidence is gone; the man’s desperate. He’s lost the love of his life, he knows it’s partly his fault, he misses her (it could be a “him”; Tweedy’s intentionally unclear on gender) and can’t get her back. For all the strangeness of lines like “take off your band-aids, ‘cus I don’t believe in touchdowns” and “you’re quite a quiet domino, bury me now,” it’s a basic my-baby-done-left-me song.

One line’s always left me scratching me too much—“I want to hold you in the Bible-black pre-dawn.” What the hell? But, gliding up to Oxford looking at the shiny black night looming up toward me, I got it. My copy of the Bible’s not black, but every Gideon Bible I’ve ever seen in a hotel room is. And the pre-dawn light, which I’ve only seen a few times before, is just as immense as the content of those books, and just as glossy-inky as they look.

“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” succeeded on an early Friday morning; its almost-sense made perfect sense, just that once.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to The Bible-black pre-dawn

  1. brian says:

    “Bible-black”– I always think of King Crimson’s 1974 Starless and Bible Black album, but I don’t detect either a musical or emotional reference in the Wilco song. Although, Wilco’s road guitarist, Nels Cline, is similar to Fripp’s guitar work, but “I Am Trying…” was written prior to Cline’s inclusion.

  2. Bedhead’s on my iPod and always will be. A brilliant, brilliant band. I’d like “The Rest of the Day” to be played at my memorial service, in the year 2199.

  3. Jay says:

    I took it to refer to “Always darkest before the dawn”

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