Earlier this week, I got an e-mail from my friend Scott, imploring me to return to my “Fifteen Albums” series. Now I know, dear Reader, that you are just as invested as Scott, and have been following every last detail of this column’s progress, but for the less-devoted portion of our community, I’ll point out that “Fifteen Albums”—the series in which I write at length about the 15 albums that most shaped my life—has been derailed since mid-June, when I penned its seventh installment, dedicated to Smashing Pumpkins’ sophomore release, Siamese Dream. But I have wanted to get back to “Fifteen Albums”—because it has been a personally revelatory and rewarding experience, yes, but also because I promised both myself and you, kind Reader, that I would be done with this thing by the end of the year, and while that seemed a realistic goal when I started (in March), it is becoming increasingly unlikely as the weeks pass.
It should be noted that Scott’s interest in this series is not entirely due to its fine writing. No, it seems he has made a few wagers here regarding what might comprise the final eight of my 15. “I’ve distributed a list of five predictions to some of my friends,” Scott told me. “Very interested to see how I do.” As it happens, I am very interested to see how Scott will do, too. My guess is, at least three or four of his picks will be right. But I’m not sure—because I’m not sure what the second half of this list will contain. Every time I think of an album that needs to be here, I think of another more deserving. But once I start writing, I start to find my way to something that seems like an absolute truth.
8. Red House Painters—Red House Painters “Rollercoaster” LP (original release date: May 25, 1993)
If you had told me in 1993—or even in 2003, I guess—that in 2009, record stores would be on the verge of extinction, I would have covered my ears and started shrieking in hysterical disbelief. I would have been horrified and crushed by the idea that I would not have been able to spend my every last dollar and waking hour searching used bins for hidden gems. And while that reaction might have been over the top, it would not have been without some justification.
It was in a used bin that I found Red House Painters’ self-titled full-length debut (known as the “Rollercoaster” LP, because of the image on its cover: a sepia-toned photograph of a dilapidated rollercoaster), in the fall of 1993. At the time I spotted the CD, I knew nothing of the band except that they had been mentioned in a positive light in Spin Magazine, and that was enough for me: I purchased the CD on the spot. It was a gamble, as were the majority of my music purchases at that time in my life. And, like most gambles, it could—and, based on the odds, should—have resulted in nothing more than some wasted time and money.
Instead, I won the lottery.
I don’t have the space to express here how Red House Painters became the band at the center of my life, which is a good thing, because I also don’t have the words. I do have stories and memories—hundreds of them—but I will share only a few of them here.
It was that fall, as a college sophomore, that I experienced my first truly ugly, tormenting heartbreak, as my then-girlfriend and I drifted apart, angrily and inevitably. We were 19. And “Rollercoaster” was the soundtrack to my sadness and confusion. It is an album of nostalgia and pain; it is intricate, placid, sublime and utterly, life-alteringly beautiful. At 76 minutes long, it is also an ocean of music—vast and endless, an experience in which to get lost, a road trip, a journey, a relationship.
Over time, Red House Painters came to mean much more to me than the melodrama and strife I had been enduring when I was first touched by that music. Since 1993, I have heard thousands of records, but I have never loved any music more than that produced by Mark Kozelek, the singer and songwriter at the core of Red House Painters.
In 2003, a decade after first hearing “Rollercoaster,” I spent a week in San Francisco, Kozelek’s home and a constant subject in his lyrics. As soon as I started wandering the city’s streets, I was looking for the landmarks mentioned in his songs. The first track on “Rollercoaster” is called “Grace Cathedral Park”—named after a small, tranquil park that rests in the shadow of San Francisco’s mighty Grace Cathedral. It was the one place I had to find—my only true destination in one of America’s most beautiful and historic cities. And when I got there, it was as if I had walked into the lost city of Atlantis. It was a personal mythology that had been constructed in my imagination. And it was every bit as sad and magnificent as my imagination’s renderings.
Every day of that week, I visited Grace Cathedral Park—sat on its benches drinking coffee or listening to music or just watching people, as they walked dogs, practiced T’ai Chi, talked. And as I sat there, I imagined Kozelek in that park, too, some decade or so earlier, in some autumn sunset, as he dreamed of the music inside him, the music I would eventually find and fall in love with, the music that would eventually find me.